Friday, November 21, 2003

What are "work habits"?

With the latest revelations about Work for the Dole programs actually doing more harm than good at getting participants into jobs – aka the Howard Government’s “truth overboard” porky # 1001 – it’s time to ask: What exactly is WfD [good] for?

The answer here is pretty simple: “work habits”. Not habits that lead to actual jobs, mind, but habits nonetheless. Or as today’s Australian editorial puts it:

[T]he Government's own commissioned research shows that work-for-the-dole is not getting people back to paid work fast enough. But surely it is helping to re-establish the rhythm and discipline of work in their lives.

Now perhaps it’s just me, but when the relatively nondescript (or small-p Presbyterian, if you like) phrase “work habits” is unpacked and dressed up into “the rhythm and discipline of work”, I can feel a Dickensian workhouse coming on.

As far as I’m aware, outside third-world sweatshops, “work” does not have some sui generis “rhythm and discipline”. If it appears that way (and I accept that it often does, especially in low-paid jobs), this is not because all those humans are little robots, but because they are all doing much the same thing at the same time for money. Yes, I know that that is a well-understood fact, but it is worth re-stating – the appearance of “rhythm and discipline” shows nothing other than a big-picture view of a group of people doing what they need to do to individually earn money. It is not a moral thing; nor anything good (or bad) in itself.

Conversely, when work – or its mysterious “rhythm and discipline” essence – is not associated with the earning of money, but for its own sake, surely something is wrong?

The Victorian workhouse/poorhouse – which combined poverty and hard labour, while WfD combines poverty with (usually) only “soft” labour – was widely condemned in theory, even in its time. That it persisted so long can be attributed to the industry it built up. Such “industry” does not mean, of course, the collective labours of its inmates – in order for the workhouse/poorhouse to function as a last resort “stick”, its productivity as an industrial unit was beside the point (a feature shared by modern WfD programs).

Instead, the workhouse/poorhouse was a self-sufficient industry based on spending as little as possible of the program’s funding (supplied by outside charities) on the inmates, and re-allocating the saved money into program administration. Which is really only human nature, I guess – the old doing-it-for-the-money thing coming up again. (If the inmates were stuck in a hellhole anyway, working for no rhyme or reason, why shouldn’t the administrators at least be able to better themselves?)

Such thinking no doubt explains why, with WfD now exposed as a fraud, both on its participants and on the Australian taxpayer, nothing is going to change. As long as someone’s making money out of it, it must be a good thing.

And sure enough, Victorian morality – under which poverty alone came to be regarded as making an individual morally suspect – is now making a resurgence, with this idea to link eligibility for welfare benefits with “acceptable social behaviour”. Like WfD was originally, such an idea is “sold” as a panacea for behaviour-change in young people. Yeah, sure – the minute that someone starts making money from “policing” (nothing to do with the criminal law, note) morality, a.k.a. “acceptable social behaviour”, the shutters, of Joe Public giving a fig over whoever gets caught in the resultant dragnet, go up.

P.S. As usual, Opposition Leader Simon Crean kicks an own goal. In response to yesterday’s news about WfD programs being frauds, he said while he supported the principle of mutual obligation, it had to be a two-way street.

Yeah, so long and thanks for the tautology, Simon. If you weren’t already such a hardened dumb-fuck – ever since you sooled the shockjocks and cops on to innocent uni students – I’d suggest you go back to school.

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