Left Behind: Thomas Studans from the Australian Unemployed Workers Union on Mornings

August 16th 2021

A red Subaru Forrester carrying a passenger with long dark hair that is wearing a blue surgical mask and holding up a sign that says "VACCINE LEAVE AND SICK LEAVE FOR EVERY WORKER". The car, also carrying a dog in the back seat, has "PAID PANDEMIC LEAVE NOW!" spray painted onto its side. 

  • Thomas Studans from AUWU :: Interview with Sophie Gordon

“We’re pretending that we don’t know how to solve this problem when we have all the answers, and we implemented them, and it worked!”

In the first three weeks of July, nearly 210,000 jobs were lost in NSW. After Sydney was thrust into lockdown on 26 June, financial support was announced – though only to a select group of people. Until July 28th, four weeks into lockdown, COVID disaster payments were inaccessible to those already on some form of Centrelink payment. But some people have still been left behind. To find out why, Sophie talked to Thomas Studans, the Greater Sydney Representative for the Australian Unemployed Workers Union all about the social security net’s failings during this lockdown period. 

“The Australian Unemployed Workers Union is an association of people on welfare, on social security payments, and we provide advocacy services for people dealing with job providers and we provide people with either advice or a proper steer towards the right legal resources for issues they’re having with those or with Centrelink itself.”

The COVID Disaster Payment was announced on June 3rd in response to a lockdown in Victoria that commenced in the last week of May, and was extended to residents of the Greater Sydney region on June 26th, the day that the most recent lockdown came into effect. This payment offers $750 a week for those losing in excess of 20 hours of work a week and $450 for those losing between 8 and 20 hours of work, but some found it difficult to ascertain their eligibility or even access Services Australia to claim the payment.

While improving the wellbeing of many workers across the state, the selective criteria meant thousands of people already on income support – plenty of whom lost work during lockdown – were left behind.

“We know from the government’s data that they published that there’s a significant number of people in that situation; I know a number of your listeners will be in that situation, because I’ve been in that situation… You have a casual job. That’s the economy we’re living in for young people; it’s been that way since the last global financial crisis.”

Four weeks into lockdown, financial support was finally extended to some Centrelink recipients: $200 a week to those that have lost more than 8 hours of work a week. 

“The support is available to welfare recipients now, that wasn’t the case when it was first announced, in fact it quite deliberately excluded them, and in some ways still does. But you are now eligible for disaster payment if you declare income and are on a Centrelink benefit… if you have lost eight hours – [that] is the minimum.”

There are a number of workers already on some form of Centrelink payment who have lost hours of work due to the public health crisis but have been deemed ineligible for COVID Disaster Payments. For example, those on the Disability Support Payment can earn up to $178 and Job Seekers $150 per fortnight before their payment is reduced. Because they don’t meet the disaster payment criteria, they remain on the standard rate of payment, which both the AUWU and Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) have deemed unlivable.

“Last year the government decided that the rate of social security is not liveable during these times. For people on these payments, if they’re disabled, if they’re unwaged workers, or if they are in work… there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of acknowledgement that people like us exist. Even though there are hundreds of thousands of us – 400 thousand – across the country, and a significant number of those in NSW.”

This lockdown has seen a few different campaigns calling for income support; some calling for the return of JobKeeper and others calling for the unemployment benefit to be raised to $80 a day. While these measures are at least something, their adequacy is questionable in light of the evidence that Job Keeper effectively functioned as a corporate bailout, while the Henderson Poverty Line has risen to nearly $82 a day.

“While they are more fulsome demands than was the case before COVID… These are calls that are for base adequacy so that people do not have their lives ruined, or become ill and get Coronavirus for instance, because of the unliveable rate of welfare.”

The Greater Sydney Branch of the AUWU is (and has been for some time) calling for the Job Seeker rate to be raised at least to where it was last year with the COVID supplement (an extra $550 on top of the current rate). They are also calling for other measures such as rental amnesties, eviction moratoriums and suspension of mutual obligations – an unscrupulous, exploitative system in which Employment Service Providers regularly breach social security law and push vulnerable unemployed people into Work For The Dole sites that don’t meet workplace health and safety requirements

“Only in Sydney where we’ve had lockdowns have Mutual Obligations been suspended, and in the rest of the state, people are still being asked to go to job providers – and either way, my job provider is still sending me seven texts a week saying ‘Come on! Have an appointment!’”

The AUWU is also asking for the removal of means testing and ID checks – both required in the process for claiming Centrelink payments, with the latter still being conducted in person.  

“Means testing and ID checks – this is one thing that is driving people to Centrelink queues at the moment, in ‘hotspots’ as we call them… people are going there because Centrelink is saying ‘we need to see your ID in person’. Right now they don’t… We know that the partner assets test, all these assets tests, they were all suspended last year, and you know what happened? People weren’t lining up at Centrelink anymore. So… I feel like I’m taking crazy pills… we’re pretending that we don’t know how to solve this problem when we have all the answers and we implemented them, and they worked!”

The movement for increasing support to everyone affected by COVID lockdown is gaining momentum, hitting a huge landmark last week when Sally McManus, Secretary of the ACTU called for the Job Seeker rate to be raised to $600 a week.

“It’s something that’s very heartening to all of us in the movement, that organisations like the ACTU [Australian Council of Trade Unions] – and a lot of the major trade unions are behind this already – but the peak body is now calling for $600 a week… 
There is a broad coalition of civil society that is asking for this. Not for any reason other than it’s extremely necessary and it underpins the failures of the COVID response in Australia. Welfare being paid properly to people without obligation is a public health response, and we know this because we did it last year.”

Listen to the whole interview for more chat about welfare payments, protesting precarious working conditions and getting pollies to listen to us. Get involved with the Australian Unemployed Workers Union via the links below this final remark from Thomas:

“Lockdown sucks, this is one thing you can do – talk to other unemployed people, organise your communities and demand better. Demand better from our politics, because it is not a one-party issue and the only time it gets changed is through community power and the politicians recognising that they no longer have a choice but to acquiesce to these demands.”

Join AUWU, your rights and advocacy information:

AUWU Socials:

Services Australia:

Big thanks to co-contributor and producer Lindsay Riley.

Music featured:

The Smiths – Money Changes Everything

Wartt Gunn – Jobless

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