Since forming in late 2014, the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) has dedicated itself to protecting the rights and dignity of unemployed workers and pensioners. Tired of the social and financial deprivation that comes with being unemployed, this voluntary crew of job seekers support one another, exchange advice on how best to navigate the welfare system, and pressure the government for much-needed changes in social policy.
Now, with over 50 branches across all states and territories, we are the only truly national organisation run by the unemployed, for the unemployed. Through our national advocacy hotline, we’ve helped thousands of Australian job seekers secure their entitlements, hold their job agents accountable, and find safe pathways into secure work.
As welfare recipients and job seekers, we are leading the fight against a wave of policies and ideologies that stigmatise us, police our behaviour, and make receiving (and living off) entitlements increasingly difficult. Here, we galvanize low-income communities (who are poorly represented by political parties and labour unions), arm them with information, and build grassroots campaigns for living-wage jobs and a strong, secure safety net. One of the longest-running, and most important, of these struggles has been our campaign to raise the punishingly low rate of Newstart.
Despite being a prosperous nation, it’s staggering that Australia’s social security payments to the unemployed are the second-lowest in the OECD. At $275 per week for singles, Newstart remains fixed at $145 per week below the poverty line. As a result, Australia has the second-highest rate of poverty among the unemployed in the OECD.
Each week, we hear dozens of stories from unemployed workers who are struggling to cope on Newstart. Many speak about how being on the payment makes it impossible to actually find work, because they can’t afford travel, access to the internet, phone credit or decent clothes. On Newstart, each day is a battle for our unemployed just to put food on the table.
Since forming, we’ve tried to amplify these voices and stories—the personal, often hidden, experiences of our unemployed—in the hope of convincing our leaders in Canberra to increase the rate of Newstart. Sadly, to date, this has mostly fallen on deaf ears and cold hearts (even Labor is only willing to commit to a ‘root and branch’ review of the pitiful payment).
Given the reluctance of our federal leaders to lift Australians out of poverty, the AUWU’s campaigning around Newstart has begun to focus more on building power and support from below, instead of waiting, fruitlessly, for more aid (and humanity) from those at the top.
This year, the AUWU, in partnership with the Anti-Poverty Network, has started lobbying and petitioning local councils to start publicly advocating for an increase to Newstart. So far we’ve successfully lobbied over a dozen local councils in South Australia and Victoria, who have now joined the #RaisetheRate campaign, and are standing up for their local, unemployed residents.
Through this campaign, job seekers have been given a platform to share their stories with councillors about how difficult it is to survive, day-to-day, on Newstart. Crucially, the councillors have been listening—and stirred into action. This has been a hugely important display of support and solidarity for our members, many of whom have never witnessed a government body so committed to hearing their concerns and advocating on their behalf.
For the foreseeable future, this is what our Newstart campaigning will entail: recruiting local governments and councillors into the fight to #RaisetheRate until we build the kind of burning platform for change that the big brothers in federal government simply cannot continue to ignore.
Jeremy Poxon is the media officer for the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union.