By citing lack of responsibility and no sense of obligation as their character flaws, Prime Minister Gillard grossly ignores the evidence that the problem with unemployment is as much, or maybe more, a demand side problem as the fault of the unfortunate supply side of underused labor.

There are thousands of people who are desperate for jobs amongst the million plus who are officially looking for work or who would take work if it were available. The official ABS figures counted only 170,000 private sector vacancies in February and most of these would require recent employment experience, qualifications and skills. There are 230,000 job seekers on Newstart and 600,000 plus looking for work in the ABS count, let alone a million more on other payments, or no payment at all, who are looking for work. So where are the jobs for them all or even half of them?

The prejudices and judgements of most employers to those without recent or appropriate experience shouldn’t be discounted. Most of the discouraged workers who knew jobs were there claimed they were rejected for being too old or sometimes too young to get the jobs they applied for. We know there is discrimination against older workers and age correlates with long-term unemployment. We also know that long-term unemployment, even with recent training, will also be held against an applicant.

There are many other prejudices and biases that apply when people with disabilities or some other limiting factors apply for jobs. Yes, there are special services but they place only a limited number of people and have to work hard with employers to make it happen. If applicants live in suburbs with a bad name, are obviously from a particular ethnic group that is seen as a problem or even live a long way away, they are much more likely to miss out on jobs.

A few years ago I led a study of sole parents with Terry Priest, when the Howard government started to put them on Newstart to “push” them into paid employment once their child turned six. The parents we interviewed were usually quite keen to work but found many barriers. Apart from prejudice amongst some employers, there were practical difficulties in finding hours that allowed them to drop children at school and be there when needed. It was hard to find jobs that coincided with school hours and recognised that sick children needed care sometimes and other time constraints.

There is no work being done on employer attitudes, or on helping employers to work out how to make employment more friendly to people with intermittent health problems or children with care needs. There is little recourse for the many applicants who are forced to go to interviews to fulfil job-hunting requirements but are regularly knocked back because they don’t fit most employers’ limited or prejudiced views. This type of experience destroys what is often limited self-confidence and not surprisingly may lead to avoidance of further rejections.

We need to ask why relatively few job placements occur through the expensive job placement networks and most people find jobs through contacts. These do not exist in areas with many unemployed or families without jobs. We need to recognise that there are relatively few genuine slackers that are out there but there are some deprived groups that have long experience as outsiders and being discriminated against. Assuming that all they need is to get off their butts just adds to their alienation as they and many others know that they are unlikely to please any potential employer without work being done on the employers’ prejudices and assumptions.

We know from many studies that serious paid work experience, not make-work for the dole, over an extended period, can lift people’s confidence and help them move onto other jobs. We also know that interminable training without a specific job in view does little to assist in finding jobs. We also know that being unemployed is devastating and deeply distressing for many who are. Therefore making them scapegoats for the political appeal to judgemental tax payers is not useful and also unfair.

“Labor by name and Labour by nature” may be a catchy title but it does little for those society excludes and then rejects.

Peter Fray

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