Work for the Dole: Picking Oakum in the 21st Century.

Job Network picB

Illustration by Simon Kneebone


Oakum is the tarred end of a rope. In the19th century, prisoners and inmates of work-houses were given pieces of old rope to unravel and sort into strands.

Save for re-cycling the rope, the work served no purpose. It had no thought of rehabilitation or education. It was seen for what it was; punishment.

A penance administered by means of thuggery and underpinned with a strong dose of ‘come to Jesus’ piety and parsimony.

Oakum picking is long gone but the mindset and method remain.

The video link shows a man stacking bricks. It’s a warm day and he’s wearing a tee-shirts, shorts and soft shoes. He has no safety gear. His Jobactive provider told him that he wouldn’t need it. The man is doing work for the dole as a brickie’s labourer and working on the construction site of a Vietnamese temple in the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta.

As he loads bricks into a wheel-barrow, the owner decides to provide him with a make-shift shelter so that he can continue his work. The shelter consists of a canopy strapped to a twenty foot pole and held on by a few rusty bolts. The wind blows hard and the pole bends like a reed. The canopy tips precariously. The man is not wearing a safety helmet. Neither is the operator of the back-hoe to which the pole has been attached.

The site is a occupational health and safety nightmare.

The text accompanying the clip explains that when the man returned to the Jobactive and explained that he refused to work at the site due to the danger and lack of proper safety gear, he was told that his payments would be cut.

To add insult to highly likely injury, as a ‘volunteer’ he is not eligible for WorkCover.

This means that should he be injured, he is not eligible for any kind of workers compensation and more than likely he will still have to report once a fortnight to his Jobactive provider.  At the same, he will have to produce evidence of applying for 40 jobs a month, as well as  make up for time lost on his WfD when he has recovered from his injury.

Picking Oakum in the 21st century. Forced labour to keep a pittance of an allowance fifty per cent below the poverty line.

The operators of these new work-houses are off-shoots of parent corporations such as The Angus Knight Group of which the Westpac Bank is a major share-holder. Others such as the Providence Service Corporation  run a number of  providers in most states, as does the US based Maximum Employment. And let us with a gladsome mind include the Salvation Army, which as an organisation is just shy of reaching the 500 mark on Business Review Weekly’s list of top 1000 enterprises.

The employees of these corporations are largely drawn largely from the ranks of lower income brackets ($43 – 47,000pa), and are driven by management to meet targets. To do this they have been given additional power in the form of fines or suspension of a ‘client’s’ payments at their own discretion.

They are the new Kapo’s. Clinging desperately to their low-income role as enforcers while being squeezed from above with the threat of being thrown to the mob if they don’t beat the mob hard enough.  

This results in driving the unemployed harder in order to please their masters. Gotta make next month’s target.

In the melee, guidelines are ignored or misread, notification of appointments arrive a day after the appointment was scheduled, people are told that they have to work for five hours per week longer than the regulations require.

The man carrying bricks is told that he doesn’t need safety gear for the work-site he’s been sent to. When he complains, the kapo’s threaten him with suspension of benefit even before checking his claim. Re-assignment to another work-site results in less dangerous surroundings but similar circumstance. No safety gear.

You’re injured? WorkCover could care less.

Neither does your provider. Report with evidence of looking for 20 jobs per fortnight. Difficulty in making it to an interview due to your injury? Not our problem. Remember that you have to make up for lost time on your Work for the Dole project.

Gotta reach next month’s targets or I could lose my job.

Like its 19th century predecessor, the 21st century version of picking Oakum has no thought of providing training or skill it is simply punishment in the guise of ‘mutual obligation’ and aimed at keeping a slim margin of the electorate satisfied that their tax dollars aren’t being spent on lay-abouts who prefer to make poverty a life style choice.

And like its predecessor, the modern version is overseen by bullying and intimidation and under pinned by a history of defrauding government funds.

The Coalition sees this as a vote winner. Sadly, so does the ALP.

Neither could be more mistaken.