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Australia readies 'work for dole' 18- to 24-year-olds will have to toil to get welfare benefits


HOBART, Australia -- To Mel Nelson, a 19-year-old with orange hair and a stud in her nose, Australia's plans to require unemployed young men and women to work in exchange for public assistance could interfere with her job-hunting in the fashion industry.

"I mean, it's a kind of slave labor," Nelson said as she strolled in shiny black lame pants along Hobart's market street with some friends recently. "I think people aren't getting the right information about this. It's not only coercive but counterproductive."

She is desperately worried that under the new program that Australians call "work for dole," she might have to sweep streets or mow retirees' lawns to qualify for her $400 a month in unemployment assistance.

She has been studying for a fashion career, and she fears that the work requirement will make it harder for her to get the kind of skills she needs. Not only would she have less time to look for fashion jobs, but she would also be forced to work at something completely alien to her interests.

To other young people, such as Josh Liley, also 19, the program nTC holds out some hope. Liley is in a government-subsidized training program learning skills as an aluminum welder for Incat Australia, which makes ferries that are used around the world. It is Hobart's biggest private employer.

As their government prepares for a debut of the program in September, many of the unemployed people in Tasmania, an island state that is home to 470,000 of Australia's 18 million people, hope for more training programs of the type Liley is in.

No jobs in Tasmania

With general unemployment at 10 percent and unemployment of 16- to 19-year-olds at 33 percent, Tasmania has the highest rate of joblessness in Australia. Unemployment for the country as a whole is about 8.5 percent.

Liley earns $9 an hour while he is in training, enabling him to pay his rent and some debt on a 1988 Toyota Corolla that he bought eight months ago, and also to help a sister whose husband is ill. Liley loves working around ships. "The sea's in my blood," he said.

But programs like his are costly. The government's outlay on the College of Aluminum Training, where he studies welding and other metalworking skills, is $6 million to train 450 youths a year. Incat, the ferry builder, pays them their wages as they learn. Many get permanent jobs with the company. But the program accepts only one of 10 applicants.

Many unemployed young people said, though, that they feared that job programs under the new system would look more like those menial chores that give Nelson the jitters.

"It has to be needs-driven," said Gil Sawford, who runs a small Hobart employment company, Rightplacement Management Services.

"We don't want it so that all you get are a lot of people being told to go plant trees, without regard to whether any of the people are interested in horticulture or whatever."

Two days of work

Under the government's pilot program, 10,000 people ages 18 to 24 who have been jobless for more than six months will be put to work two days a week on 50 to 70 projects across the country in high-unemployment areas. The program does not affect older people who receive aid.

Local councils and service organizations are to forward ideas for projects of special benefit to their communities. Whether those will improve job skills or consist simply of menial tasks remains to be seen.

The year-old government of the Liberal Party -- which despite its name is conservative and business-oriented -- has sold the idea of requiring young people who get assistance to work as an issue of fairness.

"We look after people who need help and who can't get jobs," Prime Minister John Howard told Parliament during debate on the measure. "It's not unreasonable to ask of those people who can't get jobs that they do something in return."

Although the welfare system is firmly entrenched in Australia, even opposition politicians in the more leftist Labor Party have gone along with the proposal, recognizing that voters seem to like it.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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