Indigenous people on the federal government’s Community Development Program have claimed they are left without any real work most days and forced to do menial jobs in unsafe conditions, which won't lead to employment or acquiring skills.
This week a report on the CDP, a regional work for the dole scheme, by the Australian National Audit Office found that the $1.6 billion program had been beset with accusations of rorting among the 40 listed third-party job providers including; claiming fees for dead workers, and lying about worker attendance. More than $700,000 had been recovered from agencies after they “significantly misreported attendance” the report found.
A high percentage of providers were found to be either at risk of fraud or financially vulnerable. On average, payments for managing CDP workers made up more than 70 percent of provider’s income.
A Senate inquiry is still considering the findings of its own hearings into the CDP where 80 per cent of the workers Indigenous.
“People who are already very poor have become a good deal poorer.”
Workers who spoke with NITV News described being assigned pointless busy work, such cleaning walls or being left at desks with no work to do for months on end, while others said they feel exploited being handed over to employers by the government to work for just $11.60 an hour, for 25 hours a week.
Some have said they are allowed to operate heavy machinery and power tools without training and proper supervision, which has lead to people getting injured.
Single dad Revis Parker lives in the regional WA town of Karratha and relies on the CDP payment to care for himself and his 8-year-old son.
He said that most days CDP workers at his placement, which is with the organisation Real Employment for Aboriginal People (REFAP), were left with no work to do and placed in front of computers to do what is called “admin work”, but which he says, in reality, involves surfing the internet and looking for other jobs to apply for.
“We just look for jobs online they don’t give you any admin work, you can’t learn anything,” he said. “It’s extremely boring.”
He said people were rarely, if ever, given real administrative work to do.
“I complain about this to them all the time, I told them you know, ‘why are we sitting there doing nothing? Why can’t we do a TAFE course or online course instead and learn?’”
Lara Watson from the First Nations Workers Alliance said she had heard similar stories from many CDP recipients.
“Some of these workers actually have skills and experience where they could be paid to do the job, and there is no mechanism in place that requires employers, after getting CDP participants, to put them in full time or part time employment – they could have CDP participants working in these roles for 25 hours a week 52 weeks a year,” she explained.
“There is no cost here to the employer – they are getting access to a pool of free labour in these communities."
Alissa Limerick, who is also in the same CDP program as Revis, said workers were often left with nothing to do.
“There was a bloke, he was mucking around with a nail gun and I think the nail went into his head and he wasn’t wearing a face shield.”
“We’re kind of wasting time,” she told NITV News.
“They think that we are getting skilled, but we are not, we should be getting help getting qualifications.”
They said on some days there were so many people assigned to admin work that there were not enough computers for everyone. Revis said on these occasions CDP workers were made to clean and cook do other menial work for REFAP.
“It’s not real stuff. Today they made everybody wipe tables and walls down, rubbing the computer screens and desks down,” he said.
“We’re not supposed to be doing those things.”
REFAP provided a statement in response to NITV News’ questions about work activities.
“REFAP ensures that all job seekers registered with them are given a fair go, and are placed in positions appropriate to their individual skill set and work-readiness, and in environments that are safe for both themselves and their fellow workmates,” the statement said.
“We have created skills development and employment opportunities for hundreds of participants on our journey, and have been supported along the way by amazing employers in our community, including some of Australia’s best known corporate brands."
However, according to Revis and Alissa when people were given actual work training to do as part of their CDP activities it sometimes involved operating dangerous machinery with no training and limited supervisions.
“I’ve seen some people that are operating power tools and machinery, and they don’t know what they are doing – people can use everything that is in the workshop”, said Alissa.
“When I first went there, last year they had one called 'Engineering with Welding Tools' and that but I didn’t know how to do that. They assumed we knew what we were doing.”
“It so far outstrips the level of penalties other Australians are getting. It is extraordinary and clearly discriminatory.”
She describes one disturbing incident which she alleged resulted in a serious injury to a CDP participant.
“There was a bloke, he was mucking around with a nail gun and I think the nail went into his head and he wasn’t wearing a face shield,” she said.
“He went to the hospital and that, but he come back next day.
“They don’t tell them they have to wear safety gear in the workshop shed.”
In the statement provided to NITV News, a spokesperson for REFAP said: “Safety is our highest priority. Our staff and program participants are trained in safe work practices to support and enhance workplace safety.”
Lara Watson said anecdotal reports of injuries were high and that there are minimal protections for injured workers.
“These cases are starting to pop up and it is actually mortifying. There was a gentleman who actually sliced three of his fingers with a saw and basically, the insurance got him to the hospital and that was it, so any ongoing medical costs, rehabilitation that was out of his pocket no support for future work,” she said.
'Forced to seek jobs that don't exist'
Western Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, the party’s spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs, said in most communities, the jobs CDP recipients are told to find simply aren’t there.
“The overwhelming criticism is the number of people losing income support for (not attending activities) but it’s a road to nowhere, those jobs, they aren’t there – you don’t magically click your fingers and then all of a sudden you’ve created jobs, there has to be some sort of industry,” she told NITV News.
Researcher Lisa Fowkes from the Australian National University said the CDP created busy work rather than jobs.
“What people want, and in my research I have spent a lot of time talking to people who are participants in these programs, they want jobs with real wages, they don’t want to get paid $11 bucks an hour, they want to do something meaningful and purposeful, and they want to get paid a decent wage. Getting them to do jobs that are purposeless is really wrong.”
CDP recipients are not classified as workers under the Fair Work Act. They receive an hourly rate of $11.60 per hour, or $290 a week for working 25 hours, over five days. The national minimum wage is currently $18.29 per hour. CDP workers have to begin work right away and work continuously to receive payments. Other job seekers have six months after signing up for payments before they have to work, and are only required to work for six months of the year.
Employers using CDP workers are paid incentives “once a remote job seeker has been employed full time for 26 weeks. You are eligible to receive up to $7500 (plus GST) for full-time employees or up to $3750 (plus GST) for part-time employees,” states the CDP website.
However, there is no requirement or incentive to create a full-time job once payment from the government is received for the periods set out above.
A spokesman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said suggestions the CDP was not creating jobs were wrong and that thousands of actual jobs had been created through the program.
“The program has supported jobseekers into 19,748 job placements since 1 July 2015 to 30 September 2017, of these job placements, 2835 were full-time, 2445 were part-time and 14,468 were casual jobs,” he told NITV News in a statement.
He also said that some 5200 CDP workers had been placed with private organisations which could use CDP workers and that there is sufficient regulation of placements to protect existing jobs.
“There are tight rules governing these arrangements to help protect real jobs, including limiting the maximum duration of a placement to six months and restrictions to the number of hosted placements an organisation can offer.
“Where the Department becomes aware of specific instances of providers not meeting their requirements, we have processes in place to address this.”
Harsh penalties and no way out, say workers
One of the biggest complaints against Centrelink, which manages the payments to workers, is the cutting of people’s payments and imposing harsh fines when people had to attend sorry business, cultural events or seek medical care, often hundreds of kilometres from their remote communities. The Australian National Audit Office report found that CDP recipients were four times more likely to be penalised than other job seekers.
Revis Parker knows all too well what happens when Centrelink disagrees with a request for leave.
He needs to take time off sporadically to accompany his mother who has breast cancer for treatment.
The last time the 30-year-old single parent had to unexpectedly travel to Perth with his mother for chemotherapy, he was refused permission by Centrelink to stay a week longer when his mother became seriously ill.
“Mum was down there herself and I wanted to stay there with her during treatment, and I tried to explain that to them (Centrelink) but they were like ‘no you got to come back’. I felt like I was being forced and I wasn’t allowed to have any personal obligations and my own commitments,” he told NITV News.
Revis’ mother’s condition worsened while he was there.
“So I just stayed down there anyway and they cut my payments off.”
Senator Siewert said the fines were harsh and failed to take into account health issues, social and economic disadvantage, distance and cultural differences.
“People are getting hit. While there is a small provision in CDP for cultural responsibilities, what they say is ‘ok, if you are going off to sorry business, what day are you going to be back?’ and anybody that knows anything about sorry business and cultural business is you can’t say ‘I will be away for two weeks’ for various reasons, like the business may end up lasting longer, or [get stuck because of] a lack of transport and then you can’t get back home.”
ANU Academic Lisa Fowkes says there are up to 35,000 people in the CDP and they have received more work for the dole related penalties than all of the 750,000 other Australian unemployment benefit recipients combined.
“If you’re in Job Active (regular work for the dole) you participate in job search and receive other forms of assistance for 12 months before you even have to go into work for the dole at all, and then, when you’re in work for the dole, you only have to do it for six months of the year. But if you are in CDP, you have to go into work for the dole from day one. It’s five days a week, five hours a day, and you have to do it till you leave unemployment benefits, all year round,” she said.
“It so far outstrips the level of penalties other Australians are getting. It is extraordinary and clearly discriminatory.”
The spokesman for Minister Scullion rejected suggestions the policy was targeting remote areas and said all job seekers have obligations in return for receiving government support.
“The system also has strong protections in place for job seekers – and any penalties can be waived if it is assessed they will cause financial hardship,” he said.
“However, the Government has recognised that more can be done to improve our employment services in remote Australia and the Minister has been actively discussing CDP and consulting with a wide variety of stakeholders, including CDP providers and remote communities, over the past 18 months.”
Damien McLean, a Community Development Adviser with Ngaanyatjarra Council in Warburton in Western Australia, told an ongoing Senate inquiry into the CDP that the program had reduced people’s standard of living and increased hardships.
“People who are already very poor have become a good deal poorer. The things that fall away are things like access to washing machines, soap powder, towels, power cards and all of the things that really are basic to having a liveable household,” he said.
“There is very little interest in community development. This program makes a very poor partner.”
Many community leaders have called for the return to Community Development Employment Programs which allowed communities the power to manage payments to members and to decide what jobs were needed, but this was scrapped after the Northern Territory Intervention. The CDEP was replaced by the Remote Jobs and Communities Program in 2013, and then by the CDP in 2015.
Senator Siewert supported returning to a model like the CDEP.
“What people want is CDEP, which a lot of people acknowledge in some areas there were some problems with, and others that it worked really well. We need to go back to CDEP with community wages, with top up which is run by the local community”
Concerns CDP creating mental health issues
A remote community health worker in the Northern Territory who did not wish to be named told NITV News the effects from the introduction of CDP into his community were dire.
He said that in addition to losing the funding to run programs that the community used to receive under the old CDEP, there was also a flow-on effect when people were fined or removed from CDP.
“It’s mainly men who are the ones who don’t show up. There’s no work and they can’t understand the point of being paid less than they did under the CDEP when they do get work,” he says.
The worker said that when the men aren't receiving an income to support the rest of the family, this further stretches the family's ability to make ends meet.
The worker also described soaring rates of mental illness, as people felt destitute, feeling there was "no way out".
“The mental health issues are huge, the stress levels are huge,” he says.
“They just see punitive measures under the CDP everywhere rather than supportive measures.”
Lisa Fowkes said the CDP was failing to identify people with mental health issues and disabilities.
“It’s much, much harder for Aboriginal people in remote communities to have the correct obligations set for them or their circumstances recognized. So what you find is that people who would have significant disabilities or significant mental health or other health problems are not having that reflected in their assessments, so they are getting assessed as if they have full-time work capacity ... even though there are meant to be protections in the system for those people.
“The protections are not working because they can’t get support over the phone and struggle with documentation requirements.
“So getting any recognition of their circumstances is much harder because of the lack of services, health and other services in remote communities."