I was surprised yesterday to find out from Working Links (WL) website that they are a partnership between the government, Manpower & Capgemini and Mission Australia, which is a union of Christian anti-poverty missions founded in the 19th century.
To work for Mission Australia staff-members are required to read the following statement, and demonstrate that they can work within an organisation that is based around the universally-respected values of compassion, justice and integrity.
"I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me... whenever you did this to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me." Matthew 25:35.
It would be nice to think an organisation espousing such concern about poverty could do some good and would be a welcome addition to the WL partnership. Yet first of all lets express some healthy scepticism since the alternative to a church-led employment exchange is a state led one which recognises the structural problems that occur in labour markets e.g. extremely low wages resulting from labour surpluses in particular sectors.
The mission to make the religious case for capitalism
Mission Australia has been an important component of Australian PM Howards conservative welfare reforms. Its former CEO Patrick McClure joined the charity from the Australian Institute of Company Directors. The charity’s fortunes grew under McClure’s leadership. In particular, it gained contracts to oversee job provision services after the Howard government closed its own job assistance agencies such as the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES).
McClure has also been drafted onto government welfare reform committees to provide a “caring face” while slashing welfare and social security rights. He was appointed chairman of the government’s Independent Reference Group on Welfare Reform in 1999-2000 that laid the basis for fundamental attacks on welfare and social security provision.
McClure then served as deputy chair of Howard’s Welfare to Work Consultative Committee, whose recommendations were legislated last November and came into force this month. The measures are designed to drive more than 200,000 benefit claimants, including people on single parent benefits and disability allowances, into cheap labour and work-for-the-dole schemes over the next three years. Under the new provisions, the unemployed could lose payments for eight weeks if they refuse a minimum wage job or commit any of a series of petty offences.
All of this sounds all too familiar from those up to speed on welfare reforms here in the UK. The Mission Australia website has a section entitled 'Employment Initiatives'. From which they offer the following inspirational story
" “Ronald was 247kg and had been unemployed for 8 years before Mission Australia helped him turn his life around. His self-confidence was low, having been told again and again that he was too fat, thrown into the ‘too hard’ basket by employment agencies and receiving endless job rejection letters.
The employment consultant at Mission Australia saw a lot of himself in Ronald. After putting on 60kg following a relationship breakdown, he was unhappy, listless and consumed by his break up. After two years of unhappiness, he turned his life around and knew he would be able to help Ronald as well.
8 months later, and 86kg lighter, Ronald became Australia’s first National Jobseeker of the Year. Now working at a call centre, Ronald sees a rich future in which he will continue his weight loss and continue taking pride in his work."
Behind the hope for Ronald and others like him is the ideology of those such as Ross Cameron, the former Liberal MP for Parramatta and once a leading light in the Australian prayer-breakfast circuit
“I’m against the welfare state on humanitarian and religious grounds. The early church had welfare, but it was also tough—Paul said ‘Whoever does not work, does not eat’ [2 Thessalonians 3:10]. I’d pretty much repudiate the concept of social justice, it does more harm than good.... I visited an Aboriginal community five hundred kilometres west of Alice Springs—the dependency I saw there was produced by the strategy of social justice. I’d almost call it evil.”
Cameron works for the massive Macquarie banking and infrastructure conglomerate which surprise surprise is a corporate supporter of along with JP Morgan and others of Mission Australia.
The individual against the world
For Working Links and their Christian backers the issue for the jobseeker is always what can they do to improve their prospects. Concerns about labour market conditions or broader economic questions such as impossibly high housing costs do not come into their equations. For example Working Links state
“At Working Links, we have found that a lone parent’s main barrier to work is not always childcare. It may be a lack of skills or a self esteem issue.”
Similarly in commenting on the problems facing jobseekers on the Parkhead Housing Estate in Glasgow a WL advisor said “There are a whole number of reasons stopping them from getting where they want to get to, confidence being the main one.”
This philosophy pits the lone individudal against an idealised world of opportunity where all would be well if only people would get off their arses and work. It fits the Evangelical Christian doctrine of prosperity as proof of redemption that has dominated debates on welfare in the US and Australia. And now it is subtly gaining strength in the UK.
This is after all what Gordon Brown is talking about when he mentions raising the aspirations of the British public. Everybody must get on regardless of the rest- material self advancement is the end and hard-working families can rail against those living on handouts until they are forced to work for their daily bread. And like the medieval technique of identifying witches by drowning them, those that sink present proof that they were no good to begin with.
And to the shame of their grassroots members it turns out that the PCS union has now jumped into bed with the bible thumpers at WL. How low will a union actually go to accommodate the banks and corporations in this way. Whilst some of the projects and techniques utilized by WL may work in the short-term they are not likely to provide the majority with sustainable livelihoods. The government claims that it wants to get a million off incapacity and into work yet WL charged the government £3 millions to get just 500 people in Parkhead working again.
The invasion of privacy
Perhaps the most sickening aspect of the whole WL Christian crusade is their desire to get up close and personal to potential candidates. In effect they want to get to the root of peoples personal problems and are now even attempting to provide counselling services to people with mental health problems. Again in Parkhead, WL advisers “helped seven people who claimed to be on the verge of suicide. Faced with such mental breakdown, Working Links employed a mental health co-ordinator, Irene Goodfellow, to counsel those who came in”. Following this pilot it is a scheme they hope to roll-out across the country in a bid to get more lucrative government contracts. Moreover they claim to be developing a cognitive therapy programme (perhaps involving getting a prayer life?) for the hapless claimants.
Aside from their capacity to sanctions the unemployed, WL staff overpower their victims by gathering reams of information about them. This industrialised snooping and recording of peoples feelings, sentiments, fears leaves them at the mercy of the advisers. Coupled with the powerful application of particular Christian ideals that make a lot of sense but take no account of the power structures that pervade society, the individual is left to flail hopelessly blaiming themselves for their problems. Or perhaps it is possible to play the system. The next time I go their I will be wearing a disguise.