OPINION

Inequality, pensions, robodebt ... forget what they say, we're not expendable

IT'S easy to feel expendable in this country at the moment - like our needs don't matter as much as those earning six figures or more. But they do. We matter. All of us.

We have a PM who is the fifth-highest paid leader in the world, earning more than $1570 a day, while our Newstart recipients are part of a system that is among the least generous in the world, at just $40 a day. That's less than the daily meal allowance our sitting members of parliament are paid.

We have a leadership group that claims that raising the Newstart rate is "unfunded empathy" while insisting that indexing it to CPI instead of wages growth is fair, and providing tax breaks for the wealthy. Honestly, if I hear "the best form of welfare is a job" one more time, I might just scream.

Our PM has said that we can't even rely on the aged pension, that it should be considered a welfare payment and not an entitlement after a lifetime of paying taxes.

We are seeing Centrelink's robodebt system targeting our vulnerable community members, sending them bills for thousands of dollars and putting the onus on them to prove they don't have a debt.

This has recently hit the news again with the release of an image of the robodebt "whiteboard of shame" used to incentivise staff to finalise debts quickly, which, The Guardian reported on August 9, led to employees "bending the rules" to get their numbers up.

In February, the ABC reported on the link between the robodebt system and welfare recipient deaths, raising questions about the impact of the system on the mental health and physical well-being of our vulnerable community members.

In the light of all of this, it is easy to feel like we are expendable. Used. Trampled upon. After all, how hard you work determines your pay. So if you aren't earning $200k a year, you just aren't working hard enough, right?

Our government appears to be simplifying highly complex issues.

We know that there are more than 701,000 people that the ABS (conservatively) counts as currently unemployed, while acknowledging that there are less than 250,000 jobs currently vacant.

Now, maths was never my greatest strength, but even I can see that those numbers don't compute.

Capitalist economies always have unemployment, it is not an anomaly. So why are people in this position being blamed for it?

If I hear 'the best form of welfare is a job' one more time, I might just scream.

Job creation is a huge part of the equation for minimising unemployment and ensuring that everyone who wants and needs a job can have access to employment, but the fact remains that we will never completely abolish it. So why are we demonising those of us unlucky enough to find themselves in this situation and focusing on punitively "incentivising" them when they aren't the problem?

Mental health is a significant part of this equation as well.

Unemployment often impacts our sense of identity, confidence, capability and social engagement. It takes work to dig yourself out of this hole, and it's not something everyone can do alone.

We need better support services that are accessible to people in this situation to help them prepare for work and then once they've landed a position, to retain it.

JobActive providers might do their best, but their client loads and allocated time per client just doesn't facilitate the opportunity for making any real difference.

Of course, if the government hadn't systematically stripped away $3 billion from our vocational education and training sector over the last six years - resulting in a catastrophic 45 per cent plummet in trainee and apprentice graduates since 2012 - we would have more skilled workers to plug the skill shortages that are erupting within the labour market.

But don't despair. We are NOT expendable. And we are not alone.

While we see fires everywhere in our political, social and cultural landscapes at the moment, we are also seeing firefighters creating water bucket chains. Organisations like the Australian Council of Social Service, the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, journalists, business industry representatives, senators like Rachel Siewert and Jackie Lambie and MPs like Tanya Plibersek - and even Barnaby Joyce who is struggling to make ends meet on his $200,000 salary - are all picking up buckets.

We can pick up a bucket too. Speak your truth, share your story, be the change you wish to see in the world because you matter.

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers writer and coach at impressability.com.au