‘Tick-a-box exercise’: majority of jobseekers dissatisfied with billion-dollar Jobactive system, report finds

Jobseekers are dissatisfied with the poor quality service and punitive treatment they’ve received under a $1bn-a-year privatised employment services program, according to a new report.

An Australian Council of Social Service report, released on Tuesday, surveyed respondents about their experiences of the Jobactive system, which has been the main scheme for people on unemployment benefits in Australia since 2015.

It also warns a new system, Workforce Australia, which will begin next month, retains many of the problems baked into Jobactive.

While Jobactive cost about $1.3bn a year since it was established in 2015, myriad reports have lashed it as ineffective and punitive, and respondents to the new survey were similarly critical.

The report found 75% were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their Jobactive service, while just 10% reported they were satisfied.

It said 46% of respondents believed their appointments were for less than 10 minutes and were a “tick-a-box exercise”.

Although 89% of respondents said it was important to have choice about the requirements in their job plan, 65% said they were not able to select which activities they had to do to keep their benefits.

There were 299 respondents to the survey, which had broadly similar findings to an Acoss report released in 2018. The results were far more critical than the internal research collected and often cited by the department of employment.

Common concerns, according to participants, included that monthly job search requirements were too high, training was not useful, and consultant turnover was too common and disruptive to effective relationships.

In Workforce Australia, about half the total cohort of jobseekers – those considered “job ready” – will complete their job search using an online portal instead of through an agency.

Only more disadvantaged jobseekers will be referred to an employment services provider as the government tries to free up resources for those deemed to need support.

A small sample of 40 participants in the Acoss survey had taken part in an online trial of the new system.

Of those, 67% reported not being able to understand the points-based activation system, which has received criticism from some advocates.

Meanwhile, of the 60% of people who reported having had their payments suspended under Jobactive, 33% said this had caused high levels of stress and anxiety, and 11% indicated they were unable to pay rent on time.

By contrast, the Department of Employment’s most recent survey of Jobactive participants said 61.2% were satisfied with the service they received, while 21.6% took no position and 17.2% were dissatisfied.

Among those who’ve had their payments cut while on Jobactive was Claire*, 53, who lives in the NSW northern rivers and was interviewed for the report.

She told Guardian Australia she was treated poorly by her employment service consultant while she was on jobseeker and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and, later, a cancer diagnosis.

While her first consultant had been understanding, the employee was later replaced by another staff member who was quite “militant”, and insisted on face-to-face appointments during the pandemic.

On other occasions, Claire had difficulties getting an exemption from her mutual obligations despite her poor health.

“There was a lot of this, ‘When are you going to do something for yourself,’” Claire said of her time on Jobactive. “I said, ‘I am, you just need to back off and let me do it in my own time.’

“I was just trying to get to a stable state.”

Claire has been receiving a disability support pension since March and said she has now approached a training provider of her own accord as she plans to get back into the workforce.

The Acoss report recommended the new system end activities and appointments that are unproductive, cause stress or that are expensive to attend, giving people more agency and choice, and scrapping automatic payment suspensions “because they are unfair and harmful”.

The acting Acoss chief executive Edwina MacDonald welcomed “indications from the new minister, Tony Burke, that the government will quickly review some of the worst features of the employment services system”.

This included automatic payment suspensions and unrealistic and inflexible activity requirements, MacDonald said.

“The pressures imposed on people to meet strict mutual obligation rules or risk losing income support are not helping them secure employment,” she said. “In fact, by undermining people’s agency, confidence, and mental health, they have the opposite effect.”

MacDonald said the new system was an “improvement on Jobactive”, but there were still likely to be significant issues, including, but not limited to the continuation of the work-for-the-dole program.

Burke had disappointed groups, including the Australian Unemployed Workers Union and the Antipoverty Centre, by saying it was too late to scrap the new “points-based activation system”.

The groups had called for a 90-day pause to the new scheme.

Guardian Australia revealed last year that the other major jobs program, the $1bn a year disability employment services scheme, was also failing, according to a report obtained under FOI.

It is currently under review.

Do you have a story? luke.henriques-gomes@theguardian.com

*Name has been changed for privacy

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