Community Sector Ethics and Dilemmas


What is the future of the not-for-profit Job Network members? Can they continue to bid for contracts under the new regime of Work to Welfare policies, and continue to claim to be independent and ethical organisations?

Some major welfare organisations hold a substantial proportion of the contracts and claim to do most of the placement of those with disabilities. These will probably take on a disproportionate number of the new welfare to work seekers including sole parents. In the past some of these organisations have expressed tensions about their roles in breaching clients as first line policing agents for Centrelink but now, with the new provisions, will the ethical dilemma of the new contract be too onerous? Thanks to Bill Leak at the Australian

It seems likely that the community sector has lost its battle to mitigate the ill effects of the Government legislative changes on Industrial Relations and welfare to work. Part of the sector receives very large sums of Federal money to deliver contracted services, so these major charities could be accused of ‘taking the Queen’s shilling’ that is, being good government troopers. Now they need to decide whether to continue to provide the services that they have clearly stated are badly designed and damaging to recipients.

The dilemma is whether they can separate their role as paid agents of the State and their responsibility to listen to conscience and values and promote social justice and whether they will continue to be seen as ethical organisations.

There is ample evidence that many of their constituencies will do badly in many changes in income support, compliance requirements, and maybe working condition, if they find paid work. The sole parents and those with disabilities who are to be eligible only for the new welfare to work program are particularly badly treated: Most will fail to find the paid work that fits in with their health or family demands and if they do, they may be required to accept workplace contracts with only the five minimum conditions. They will get much lower levels of income support, suffer higher withdrawal rates if they earn, may lose all their payments if they breach requirements, and be pushed into doing inappropriate work that conflict with family and health needs, and under lesser conditions than comparable workers.

No one seems able to justify how this punitive approach will increase work engagement particularly for the least skills and experiences, and/or those with health limits and family care constraints. Only a few may find low paid jobs.

St Vincent de Paul in their Senate submission estimated there were 9.2 people now available for every job vacancy. They estimate well over 1.5 million current possible job seekers. For the 1.3 million sole parents and people with disabilities on payments there are only 136,000 training and support placements. For those with few qualifications, low education and little work experience the Job Networks own figures list only 86,000 lower skilled jobs on their Jobsearch data base, most of which will want recent experience. So their success in job seeking is not likely to be high, however well the job network provider works.

This is because the Government defines the issues as a supply side (that is, a people) problem, not recognising much of it is a demand issue of not enough jobs and certainly not enough suitable ones. So there is a high chance that the welfare to work programs will only mean a not very competitive, group with pointless activity as few will find the proposed jobs. However, the main financial beneficiaries will be members of the Job Network who will have more clients thrust upon them, more bribes to seek placements, even very short term and more surrogate breaching of people who are deemed not to comply sufficiently.

While many providers are commercial organisations who should look at their own issues of corporate responsibility, I am interested in the response of the charities and other not-for-profits such as Job Futures involved in these programs. If we assume that the ACOSS campaign represents the views of these changes as being unethical and certainly breaching some accepted criteria of justice, should these organisations that purport to be there to serve the community, not shareholders, be complicit in the process? Where does an agency with values draw the line?

So what are the not-for-profit agencies, currently recipients and possible bidders for large government contracts through the Job Network, going to do about the current round? The tender process for next year is currently underway, and due in the next few weeks. Given the ACOSS campaign which involved most major agencies including some with contracts should agencies like the Salvos, Mission Australia, Anglicare and Centacare continue to bid for these programs? Or does this make them complicit in the programs they criticise?

One standard argument is that these agencies can add value by offering the contracted services to their clients with more compassion than the commercial operators. This seems to echo the standard excuses offered by many of those who were collaborators in bad political systems. This form of compliance has the unfortunate effect of legitimating the unacceptable laws by redefining them subversively or applying them more generously and using other services to buffer results.

These contracts are profitable and allow the agencies concerned to fund other services. They can have more money for emergency cash relief to offer to those job seekers who have been breached. They can provide family support services or forms of care for the children in families where job demands or job seeking demands are reducing parental ability to deal with care needs. However, this raises the issue of whether it is ethical to go along with bad laws because there are some possible good bits in these.

More importantly, it also blurs the lines between the community sector and the State by community groups being part of the policing and so being seen as reluctant to raise problems and lobby for their your constituencies. Bidding for the current contracts may further undermine the perceived difference between these agencies and the commercial sector, as well as the government. This shift in legitimacy seems to be already there as the community campaign on these two pieces of legislation was not very effective. The Government obviously failed to take seriously their relative mild protests and the PM did not turn up, as scheduled, at the ACOSS Congress this month.

One can only presume that the welfare sector was not seen as a legitimate independent voice, as it has been very compliant in its opposition that is, arguing against the degree of change, not its directions. Asking the Government to be nicer to welfare recipients when they are in full punishing paternalistic mode doesn’t work.

My keynote speech at the ACOSS Congress pointed out the huge gap in policy ideas from a sector that once drove changes. The events of these past weeks confirm my fear that the Third (or Not-for-Profit) Sector is not currently able to be the source of new ideas, critique and conscience that make both markets and State more ethical and responsive to democratic processes.

If some or all of them refused to take the contracts because of the unfairness of the policies, this would make them poorer but may restart the process of reclaiming the ethical high ground. This is step one for developing the genuinely independent Third Sector leadership in ideas, that are desperately needed.

Eva Cox is a Senior Lecturer in Social Inquiry at University of Technology Sydney, and has an interest in creating more civil societies.

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