Employment agencies accused of coercing recipients of job seekers

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Matt Tyrrell is one of thousands of Australians who have become a beneficiary of JobSeeker after losing their jobs or hours due to the pandemic.

He is also one of countless people whose payments have been automatically cut off due to failures of employment agencies paid by the federal government to help them find work.

Tyrrell alleged his employment agency refused to allow him to study a course at TAFE, a right set out in Mutual Obligations legislation, and tried to force him to take a course run by a training body recorded that he owned instead. His case was described by an activist in the sector as a “worst case scenario”.

The system has long been criticized and investigated for corruption since the privatization of the Commonwealth Employment Service in 1998. But despite an annual federal budget of around $200 billion, welfare recipients are still exploited, coerced and trapped in a cycle of unemployment.

Tyrrell said the privatized system prioritizes profit and lacks accountability, paving the way for exploitation of vulnerable people who fear losing their payments.

Tyrrell began receiving JobSeeker payments at the end of 2020. After 12 months in employment services and having unsuccessfully applied for 20 jobs per month as required, Tyrrell, like all JobSeeker recipients in this position, was placed in the Work for the Dole program.

In this program, social assistance recipients are linked to a Jobactive provider – a private placement agency paid by the government to help Australians find work and help employers find workers.

Tyrrell has been awarded APM, Australia’s largest employment services agency worth over $3 billion, and the company’s default people are nominated by Centrelink.

Work for the Dole requires APM to place JobSeeker recipients in activities appropriate to their work needs and abilities where they can gain skills and experience, give back to the community, and get help finding a job. For many, including Tyrrell, that means study.

“I was a little jazzed, I had found a few courses at TAFE [like] carpentry or organic farming or horticulture,” Tyrrell told PEDESTIAN.TV.

“I thought if I had to do that, I would choose something that interests me and let’s go, but no, it was not the right path.”

The general criteria state that participants can study any skill-intensive course where the course lasts no longer than 12 months. But Tyrrell was told by his APM consultant that he could only take one of the six courses available through the MCI Institute, which APM acquired in 2019.

Tyrrell’s work plan stated that it was ‘mandatory’ that he ‘undertake 50 hours per fortnight [the number for participants aged under 30] full-time studies or training with MCI from 22/10/2021 to 30/04/2022.

He came in an email with bold red 32 point letters and told her to respond stating that he understood and consented to the plan.

Tyrrell challenged the plan, filed complaints, and repeatedly informed APM that he wanted to study at TAFE to meet his mutual obligation requirements as part of the annual activity requirements for participants in the Jobactive program. But he said he was told TAFE’s fees were too high.

“No matter how many times I put in front of them the contracts that they committed to signing as a company with the government, it was just a no-no,” he said.

He alleged that his APM consultant told him that the company made an internal business decision to keep the entire study “in-house”.

When Tyrrell did not sign the work plan within 48 hours, Centrelink cut off its JobSeeker payments automatically and without warning.

“The worst case scenario [is] Matt’s, where their payments get cut off…and then when they try to get it reinstated, it takes months,” anti-poverty campaigner Dean Fletcher told PEDESTIAN.TV.

Fletcher worked on Tyrrell’s case as a former director of the Wollongong branch of the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union, and said that although it was the most egregious case he had seen, he was far from being the first.

“There was no attempt to negotiate the work plan with him, which they are supposed to do,” he said.

“[Once] his payments had been cut, they tried to use that as leverage to force him to accept the work plan they offered him.

“They knew that with his payments cut, he had no choice at all.”

Over the past two years, Fletcher said he’s worked with welfare recipients who were forced to study certificates in areas they already had credentials for, and others who had to leave reviews. Google positives for their employment agencies to attract more customers. The government pays these private agencies per client, giving them a financial incentive to attract more people to their books and spend little time or money on them.

“The government constantly talks about the cost of the welfare system and yet it has created billionaires in the welfare industry through these private employment agencies,” Fletcher said.

Megan Wynne, Founder of APM joined Australia’s billionaires list in November 2021.

APM declined to comment.

Tyrrell said most JobSeeker recipients don’t know their rights and, desperate and vulnerable, “will just nod and smile”.

“There is a lack of information and a lack of support,” he said.

“I’m lucky I don’t have any dependents. Compared to other people and people I know, I am in a luckier position.

Fletcher said cornering vulnerable people or cutting social benefits hurts mental health and keeps people out of work indefinitely.

“It’s something that causes suicides because people can’t support themselves,” he said.

“The system is broken. It doesn’t help people find work, it doesn’t free them from unemployment.

“It keeps them in this feedback loop where if they choose to exercise their rights, like Matt did, they can end up with their payments cut off. Even if they get their payments back, there is no guarantee that the employment agency will ever suffer the consequences of what they did to them.

Fletcher said the only way forward was to restore a public system because he believed the more the government pushes to outsource social services, the longer the path to meaningful, long-term employment for JobSeeker recipients.

Image: Getty Images/Jenny Evans


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