Time to halt the race to the bottom: Defence of welfare rights is union business

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In its last two sitting weeks for 2005, the Federal Parliament passed a series of laws that will deeply affect most Australians. In this period of war and vicious cutbacks, everyone — unionists, students and the poor — will be forced to defend their right to voice dissent and organise. Among the lineup of measures steamrolled through was the new Welfare-to-Work regime, which will drive sole parents and people with disabilities into even deeper poverty. The savagery of this government, and the corporate interests it serves, is breathtaking.

From July 1, 2006 people on disability support who are assessed as capable of working 15 hours a week and single parents, once their youngest child turns six, will be moved from the pension to the more stringent unemployment benefit, Newstart. They will have to seek at least 15 hours’ paid work per week or face a non-payment period of eight weeks. The shift to Newstart will result in a payment cut of at least $25 a week. For those in part-time work, the impact is even harsher. Lower income-free thresholds and higher reductions for every dollar earned — added to the costs of working, such as transport, clothing and childcare — will mean some of the poorest people in society will get no economic benefit from working.

Welfare-to-work is profoundly sexist. Approximately 111,000 sole parents and 60,000 disability pensioners are expected to be forced onto Newstart by 2008, the majority of them women. Twenty percent of women have a disability and the majority of sole parents on welfare are female. The “family values” zealots in Parliament whose overwhelming numbers secured this piece of cruelty are also baring their teeth at women’s reproductive rights. Independent women are being punished. Thanks to a decade of Howard, there is no available or affordable childcare, and education for retraining costs too much. Jobs that suit a sole working parent or provide flexibility for managing a disability no longer exist.

Women and people with disabilities are being used as the battering ram against all working people. Howard’s welfare and industrial changes were passed as a package. The primary reason for the welfare-to-work program becomes clear in the context of the government’s demolition of the Award system. Single mothers and disability pensioners are being dragooned into the workforce to set the lowest-ever benchmark for working conditions and wages across the board. Similar to the Workfare system of the United States, the employed will find themselves working alongside welfare recipients and competing for the same jobs, with the lowest bidder winning. Job security will disappear, and “wage slavery” will take on a whole new meaning.

Working people and the union movement are at a crossroads. Last September, a few thousand Victorian union delegates met to vote on an all-union stopwork for November 15 to protest Howard’s “Work Choices” laws. A motion, moved by members of Radical Women, that the union movement fight the industrial changes and welfare laws together passed unanimously. It’s now time that unions put the words into action. It is also imperative that the union, welfare, disability and women’s movements join forces and link workplace, welfare and reproductive rights in an almighty fightback. Big business and its parliamentary minions are making the connection. Working people and unions must, too. Imagine our collective power against theirs! Let’s make it real.

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