Workfare and the activation of disadvantaged jobseekers in Australia

Stream: Panel 59 - Public Policy & Social Justice: Policymaking and Welfare Services 
Date: Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Time: 9.00 am – 10.30 am


Recent decades have seen major transformations in the delivery of welfare-to-work in Australia. This has included the contracting-out of employment services along with a major turn towards activation as entitlements to welfare have increasingly become conditional on claimants participating in mandatory job search and work experience programs. This activation turn and ‘workfare’ orientation has intensified under jobactive, with the appointment of new Work-for-the-Dole (WfD) coordinators in each employment region and increased requirements for jobseekers to perform WfD as their principal mutual obligation activity. While the employment services system performs moderately well for jobseekers closest to employment, it has a poor record supporting those with more severe barriers to employment. Just 22% of Stream 4 jobseekers who participated in the year to September 2015 achieved an employment outcome within 3 months (of these, two thirds were in casual or temporary work). This paper critiques the renewed emphasis on WfD and mandatory job searching in relation to disadvantaged jobseekers. It highlights the wider ideological role performed by workfare policies in engraining ‘market citizenship’ and equating social inclusion with labour force participation. Here an important concern is the wider labour market effects of workfare policies, with critics contending they reinforce precarity by deterring workers from refusing insecure work. This political economy critique raises important questions about whether mandatory job search and WfD programmes are even effective in moving longer-term welfare recipients from welfare-to-work. The paper concludes by considering some alternative approaches that may prove more effective for jobseekers with complex barriers to participation.


Michael McGann (Presenter), School of Social and Political Sciences, the University of Melbourne
Michael is a Research Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne, where he is working with Profs Jenny Lewis and Mark Considine, and Dr Siobhan O'Sullivan (UNSW) on employment services research. Michael specialises in research on social policy and employment, with a particular focus on issues related to insecure work and workforce ageing.