Protection Against Unemployment is a Human Right

By Mikele Prestia

The modern welfare state in Australia came into existence in the same decade as the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). What many Australians might not know, is that protection against unemployment— a central pillar of the modern welfare state — is also enshrined as a human right in the UDHR.

The Coronavirus pandemic has recast the spotlight on unemployment. Australia is now in our first recession since 1991 and many have found themselves on unemployment benefits for the first time in their lives.

The Federal Budget 2020-21 confirmed that the coronavirus supplement for JobSeeker – formerly Newstart – will remain cut and may not continue in 2021. There are 12 people on Jobseeker for every job vacancy and as many as 106 for every entry-level position. Returning to the pre-pandemic rate  — which may happen next year — will result in a further loss of 145,000 jobs and a $31 billion decline in federal revenue. 

It is clear, now more than ever, that the Federal Government’s policy towards unemployment benefits — as a social good and a human right — warrants public scrutiny.

In the early-to-mid 1940s, John Curtin’s Labor Government enacted a spate of sweeping reforms that gave rise to the modern welfare state in Australia. Among the policies introduced by the Curtin Government were child endowment, a widow’s pension, and an unemployment benefit. Prior to this, the only public welfare that existed in Australia was the aged pension. 

In 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the UDHR, which contained the following line in Article 23:

Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), signed in 1966, reaffirmed these work-related rights and enabled the implementation of the UDHR in the domestic legislation of its signatories. Article 6 and 7 of the ICESCR, ratified by Australia, states that the following must be guaranteed:

The opportunity to gain [a] living by work which he freely chooses or accepts…

Just and favourable conditions of work, including fair wages, equal pay for equal work, and safe and healthy working conditions.”

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), a UN expert body, stated that ICESCR signatories must provide, facilitate and promote the right to work, in order to “overcome unemployment and underemployment.”

Professor of Philosophy at Monash University, Tania Raffass, describes Article 23 as a socio-economic right, historically existing outside of the dichotomy of civil and political human rights in the UDHR. 

Raffass argues that the ICESCR should obligate job creation amongst its signatories in order to protect against unemployment but a lack of political will has prevented this. 

The 20th century advent of economic liberalism — free-market ideology and globalisation — has also solidified the notion that socio-economic rights, such as the right to work and protection against unemployment, were “incompatible with liberty,” as economist Friedrich Hayek said.

As a result of this, employment, the right to work and socio-economic rights generally have become a “weak-link” in the chain of human rights. The modern strategy for addressing unemployment has been to emphasise individual responsibility in transitioning from unemployment to the workforce.  

Furthermore, social policy researcher, Veronica Sheen, points out that “protection against unemployment” does not just apply to the provision of work for the abled, but also to protect against discrimination for all unemployed people, particularly people with disability who cannot participate in the labour force. 

Adopting a human rights framework that views “social participation beyond employment” allows us to loosen unemployment benefits from the millstones of productivity and labour and re-examine it as a human right. 

The protections in Article 23 and the right to work enshrined in the ICESCR, are inextricably linked. One cannot enjoy the right to work if one is not protected against unemployment. 

It follows that, if a government does not uphold these dual rights by providing full-employment — which it arguably has not done in Australia since 1970 — then, the quality of that protection as defined in Article 23 shifts from protection against unemployment to protection in unemployment. 

So how does Australia protect people in unemployment? The answer is, comparative to most OECD countries: poorly.

Newstart, the primary unemployment benefit in Australia, has been decreasing in proportion to the minimum wage for the last 30 years. Prior to the coronavirus supplement, Newstart, at $40 a day, comprised just 40% of the minimum wage, which is well below the poverty line (calculated as 50% of the median household income).

Most countries’ unemployment benefits operate as an insurance system, where money is paid as a percentage of a person’s last wage, whereas Australia’s payment is a set rate. Professor of public policy at the Australian National University, Peter Whiteford, in comparing Newstart to the insurance systems of other OECD countries, found it to be the second-lowest.

In the Australian context, while the national unemployment rate sits at 6.8%, Job Service Providers (JSPs) — the privatised sector tasked with enforcing mutual obligations — continue to profit.

The duty to work is contingent on access to paid employment, which is a human right. In the absence of paid employment for all, welfare to work strategies — such as mutual obligations — merely act as a “punitive activation scheme,” Raffass said

Domestically, instead of protecting citizens in unemployment — let alone protecting citizens against unemployment — activation schemes outsource and privatise access to employment to a sector facing increasing allegations of corruption.

JSPs have faced increasing criticism for referring unemployed people to internships with wealthy companies, as well as falsely presenting ‘working for the dole’ as a mandatory requirement of welfare benefits. 

Instead of upholding the protections for unemployed people in Article 23 — protections which transcend participation in the labour force — the Federal Government rewards activation schemes which are opposed to the right to work and protection against unemployment.

In response to the global unemployment crisis, many have advocated for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), as a means of creating a minimum standard of welfare which citizens will not be allowed to fall beneath.

Such an argument neglects to consider that employment — for those who have the capacity to engage in the labour force — is a human right. Raffass argued that individuals living only on a UBI would still be only slightly above the poverty line. This would still perpetuate many of the more insidious aspects of unemployment, such as lack of social mobility and entrenching class stratification. 

Instead, protection against unemployment and the right to work under Article 23 and Articles 6 and 7 of the ICESCR must be reaffirmed as not only socio-economic rights but human rights. The aversion to legislating socioeconomic rights into domestic legislation in Australia has manifested in contraventions of Article 23 such as perpetual unemployment and punitive, privatised mutual obligation requirements. 

American Economist, Philip Harvey, advocates for the expansion of the public sector in OECD countries as a means for creating a job guarantee. Harvey concedes that his propositions, such as the government acting as a last-resort employer for the long-time unemployed, face “insuperable” indifference from the political class. 

However, to seriously incorporate the requirements of Article 23 and the ICESCR, the political paradigm must shift towards a job guarantee. Rather than slightly elevate the floor for recipients of social welfare, guaranteed employment opportunities would provide radical inclusion into the mainstream economy. 

It is becoming increasingly clear that the pandemic did not create an unemployment crisis in Australia, it merely exposed it.

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