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Why we sorely need JobKeeper II

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With grim determination, union members have been fearlessly fronting the media to share their lockdown realities this week. Alicia joined Mairead from the Young Workers Centre on Triple J’s Hack program, talking about the struggle to make rent. And Ellen, who usually works a patchwork of jobs, spoke to The Age about suddenly being without any source of income.

It’s not easy to share stories of hardship - we’re used to putting on a brave face for the world. But these workers know that much is at stake - the Morrison Government would absolutely let working people starve if they weren’t dragged kicking and screaming to meet their basic responsibilities.

The Liberal Government’s motivations for withholding support from Victorians are both political and philosophical - as this piece by Luke Hilakari explains. But on Thursday, 7 days into Victoria’s fourth lockdown, they finally came to the table.

Workers in union have been calling for Jobkeeper II - an expansion of the original scheme that left so many workers behind, but particularly casuals and migrant workers.

But while the $500 payment that the Morrison Government has announced is, finally, available to all those workers, it leaves them high and dry in other respects.

The payment is about a third of the minimum wage - hardly enough to scrape by on. The financial stress that this will cause for workers, on top of the usual emotional turmoil of lockdown, is unacceptable. 

It is also being delivered through Centrelink, instead of tied to an employer. There are several problems with this. 

Anyone that has ever had to deal with Centrelink knows the true cost of the savage cuts the Government has made to the public service. Getting help from the desperately under-resourced and over-privatised welfare system is notoriously painful.

But the bigger problem is that a payment through Centrelink will not guarantee that a single affected Victorian worker has a job to go back to once the lockdown is lifted because it's not tied to the employer in the way that JobKeeper was. As a result, unions fear that unscrupulous bosses will use the pandemic as cover to shed staff - particularly troublesome workers who have enquired about fair pay or working rights.

The payment scheme is yet another example of the Federal Government turning up late and unprepared, denying their responsibilities whilst shifting blame to everyone but themselves. Victorians have had enough - Scott Morrison, fix your COVID mess!

Locked out of three jobs, and no support from anywhere

Ellen O’Connor, 29, engages in what they call a patchwork of employment. “A mixed portfolio of casual employment, part-time employment and self-employment,” as they describe it. “I teach pilates at a few places around Melbourne, I work in retail, and I make theatre. None of which are happening right now.

“For people who have a less traditional income stream, and especially low-income earners, it’s a real issue.”

It's an increasingly common situation, especially for those who work in the arts. But as a result, basically none of the available support payments are available to them, despite all of their work coming to a halt.

“Assuming it’s just the two weeks, it’ll be at least $1500 I’ve lost. Maybe closer to $2000. That’s most of my rent gone.”

Like many Melburnians, Ellen and their housemate started a vegetable garden during the 2020 lockdown. They are hoping it will help keep costs down as things become uncertain again.

Like many Melburnians, Ellen and their housemate started a vegetable garden during the 2020 lockdown. They are hoping it will help keep costs down as things become uncertain again.

“I was in an interesting position because prior to this lockdown. I was looking at transitioning into maybe doing more teaching work. I had potential offers, and I was thinking about quitting my retail job. I was starting to think that maybe I could take a risk for something I really want to do. But now, financially, I feel like I definitely can’t.”

On the arts front, the situation is even more dire. After the forced 12-month hiatus, Ellen had just ended a successful run of a show they had written, directed and produced. “And so then we were looking at doing something again in… maybe August? 

But now we don’t knowww,” they sing over the phone. 

During previous lockdowns, JobKeeper was essential for Ellen’s survival. 

“I was able to teach a few pilates classes on Zoom, but that money wouldn’t have been anywhere close to enough. I got JobKeeper from my retail job and that’s how I survived. Now we’re effectively in the exact same situation for the foreseeable future but the support isn’t there.”

“It wasn’t perfect, but JobKeeper was pretty straightforward. This time I have to go looking for what I might be eligible for, and the answer might be a big fat nothing.

“I’m going to try to apply for one of those small business assistance grants, because I’m a sole trader when I teach pilates, but I doubt I’ll be able to meet the earning threshold for that. The eligibility details aren’t available yet, but I’m guessing that since the size of the payment is more than I would make in these two weeks, it isn’t for me.”

On ABC’s Insiders last week, Trade Minister and senior Liberal party figure Dan Tehan was unable to give a clear answer when asked what people like Ellen should do in the event of losing work.

"Well, you can go to Centrelink and if you're eligible, if you've lost a complete week's work or if you will lose two weeks' work, then you might be eligible for one of these emergency health payments," Mr Tehan said. 

The payments he is referring to are strictly for people who need to get tested and isolated while awaiting results, and in the event of isolating after receiving a positive result. 

Inhospitable environment for hospo workers

Alicia Cooper had just started work for a cafe when lockdown was announced and shifts cancelled. 

“Sometimes I’m a bartender or a waiter. But now I’ve done all the courses and I’m a certified barista. I’m an all-rounder.

“I work for another company as well, both casual hospitality jobs, and obviously both have now been cancelled. It’s just so stressful. After all the lockdowns last year I’ve had a couple of different jobs, but I was really excited about this one I was about to start.”

Alicia had recently also moved out of home, feeling like her new, more regular employment was going to be dependable enough to survive on her own. 

“I got the job and had to wait two weeks or so to start while they got everything set up. Once I started, I only got to work two days before the lockdown started.

“I called my mum a few days ago, ranting about the situation. I only got paid for three shifts, and now I have to pay rent from just that.”

Alicia endured similar loss of work during the height of the pandemic in 2020, and was on JobKeeper at the time, which of course is no longer available.

“I’ve been at one of my casual jobs for about six years, so I was able to get JobKeeper in 2020 through that.

“I’m so lucky that I qualified as a casual the first time around, because so many other people didn’t and they had it worse than me. But now with no support this time, I understand the position, although hopefully it won’t be to the same degree and this won’t last long.”

“And because it's industry-wide, even community-wide, it’s not like I can ask at other places if there’s shifts available. There’s nothing.”

With grim determination, union members have been fearlessly fronting the media to share their lockdown realities this week. Alicia joined Mairead from the Young Workers Centre on Triple J’s Hack program, talking about the struggle to make rent. And Ellen, who usually works a patchwork of jobs, spoke to The Age about suddenly being without any source of income. It’s not easy to share stories of hardship - we’re used to putting on a brave face for the world. But these workers know that much is at stake - the Morrison Government would absolutely let working people starve if they weren’t dragged kicking and screaming to meet their basic responsibilities.

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