Racist Profiteering In Government Employment Scheme

By Leya Reid


From the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system to the biased nature of medical accessibility, colonial Australia immortalises systemic racism through institutional structures and policies. The lingering effects of colonialism (think high suicide rates, premature deaths, intergenerational trauma within Indigenous communities) in collaboration with remodelled forms of colonialism (e.g. gentrification and the increasingly bureaucratic control of Aboriginal affairs) serve to produce and sustain inequality. We live in a state where racism manufactures parliamentary consent for the economic exploitation of Indigenous Australians, immigrants, refugees and people of colour, rendering the dichotomy between the powerful and powerless impenetrable. The Community Development Program (CDP) is the latest of the Australian Government’s plan to divide, fracture and weaken Indigenous communities. Yet the conversations surrounding this racially discriminatory work-for-the-dole program are largely absent from mainstream headlines. What is the CDP, and why is no one talking about it?

The CDP was introduced in July 2015 by the Australian Government to support jobseekers and reduce welfare dependency in remote Australia. The scheme is designed to meet the requirements set by the Howard Government’s 1997 Mutual Obligation policy, which is premised on the idea that making an active contribution to society is a precondition of citizenship. This policy, intended as a method of empowering individual self-reliance, commanded wide consensus amongst leaders of both major political parties as well as prominent Aboriginal advocate for welfare reform, Noel Pearson, who expressed concern over the impact of passive welfare dependency on important community values such as self-reliance and hard work. Such positions reflect the dominant neoliberal agenda, wherein breaking the cycle of welfare dependency is pivotal.

The exploitation of Indigenous Australians through compulsory mutual obligation programs is certainly not a new concept. In fact, there has been a complex history of changes to unemployment schemes in remote Australia. The CDP was designed to address the shortcomings of the policy that preceded it, the Remote Jobs and Communities Program (RJCP), which in turn replaced the 2008 Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP).

The CDP is eligible for jobseekers aged between 18-49 that receive income support, live in a designated remote region and meet other criteria. Those that are expected to undertake work-like activities under the mutual obligation policy as a prerequisite to receiving their income support payments must cooperate with the CDP. Though the CDP is mandatory for anyone that meets the requirements, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people make up 83% of the 35000 participants. The program operates in more than 1000 communities and in 60 regions around Australia. These regions are determined by their weak labour markets, which make it difficult for residents to acquire work skills and experience.

Since its inception, the program has been censured by a range of human rights groups, community organisations and parliamentary members from the Greens and the Labor Party. Not only has the CDP fallen well short of achieving its policy objectives, it has also had antagonistic impacts on its participants, their families and their communities. Under the program, participants are not classified as workers, receive well below the minimum wage, whilst also being denied annual leave, sick leave and carer’s leave. They are not covered by the Fair Work Act, workers compensation or by Federal OHS protections. At times, participants are engaging in unpaid labour disguised as workplace experience.

There is no evidence proving that the CDP is effectively providing long-term solutions to joblessness or improving employability. The insignificant number of jobseekers that have secured long-term employment and the overwhelming increase in issued penalties are indicative of the program’s failure to affect the behavioural changes necessary for productive capitalist economies. Less than 3,500 of the 35,000 CDP jobseekers have continued to secure full-time or part-time work lasting six months or longer. These jobs were also more likely to go to non-Indigenous participants.

The enforced non-compliance measures are leaving many vulnerable people without income support and have created additional financial and social burdens for many individuals. Remote jobseekers are being penalised financially at a rate 70 times higher than non-remote dole workers and the program has seen a 740% increase in the issuing of punitive measures when compared to the RJCP. The dramatic increase in penalties is impoverishing many participants, predominantly Indigenous Australians, and causing additional financial and social stress for them and their families. Flow-on effects include reduced food security in affected communities, which has been reflected in a significant decrease in food sales.

Furthermore, there have been extensive reports of the allocation of relatively meaningless tasks and a serious lack of appropriate training or resources needed to increase the employability of jobseekers. No funding is reserved in the budget for training, which means that providers are discouraged from providing meaningful training or training at all. Participants have additionally reported to have been assigned the operation of dangerous machinery with no training and limited supervision, resulting in serious injuries.

Critically, the program disproportionately impacts Indigenous Australian communities. The CDP applies to a particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged group and rather than achieving the intended policy outcomes, most participants have experienced feelings of demoralisation and disempowerment. Many have been pushed further below the poverty line. The program also conflicts with Australia’s international human rights obligations as stipulated by the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Sustained efforts to overhaul the CDP have been met with resistance and indifference from our political representatives. Despite this, the movement has persisted. Notably, the First Nations Workers Alliance (FNWA), a First Nations-led union established in 2017 by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), have been campaigning to provide CDP workers with a collective voice to fight for fair wages and working conditions. Their mission is to abolish and replace the CDP with an appropriate model as soon as practicable. Alongside the National Social Security Rights Network and 30 other organisations in Australia, the FNWA endorses the Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT’s (APONT) community driven alternative, the Remote Development and Employment Scheme (RDES). Their proposal emphasises a focus on increasing economic opportunities in remote communities, incentives to participate and the recognition of cultural and social priorities. Ultimately, the policy approach must be owned, led and delivered by local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The CDP serves as a reminder of colonised Australia’s failure to acknowledge the relationship between welfare recipients and broader structural and systemic causes of disadvantage. Rather than empowering Aboriginal communities to exercise control over their own affairs, the CDP has only served to forestall Aboriginal self-determination and self-sufficiency. The challenge into the future is to sustain the campaign while navigating the increasingly bureaucratic control of Aboriginal affairs and the fortification of neoliberalism.