News //

Choices we shouldn’t have to make: Online day of action demands increased welfare support during lockdown

Students are demanding increased COVID relief payments and other welfare support measures.

The USyd SRC Welfare Action Group took to social media in an online day of action today, the latest in a series of awareness-raising measures to address urgent inequalities and difficulties faced by many Australians in lockdown. 

Participants were encouraged to photograph themselves with signs demanding ‘$750 a week’, pushing for an increase in Centrelink-administered COVID disaster payments from the current maximum of $600 for those who have lost more than 20 hours of work a week.

An online petition is also being circulated with a full slate of demands. Notable co-signatories currently include the National Union of Students, the NSW and Australian Young Greens and student unions from across NSW, Western Australia and Queensland. 

The campaign demands specify that relief payments should be made available to everyone “currently receiving a social security payment, casuals, self-employed people and contractors” and that “there should be no means testing to determine eligibility.” 

The current disaster payments have been widely criticised for their myopic eligibility criteria. Australians already receiving income support payments including Jobseeker, youth allowance, AusStudy and disability carer payments are barred from accessing the disaster payments – even if they have lost work.

Jobseeker sits at $315 per week for someone with no work and is reduced further if recipients work casually to supplement short-term income, meaning the current barrier to receiving the disaster payment has left many workers significantly worse off. 

Welfare Officer Lia Perkins said that for those unable to access sufficient finances this has meant “having to make the choice between safety [from COVID-19 infection] and making rent, affording groceries.” 

Workers compelled to attend work while sick to meet basic expenses has led to thousands of close contacts across Sydney, particularly in relation to an IKEA centre and Woolworths Belrose only days ago. Perkins said situations like this “shouldn’t be a choice and the government should provide an adequate net for people, allowing them to be supported if they cannot work.”  

As lockdown continues, NSW is reportedly suffering over $700 million in losses across the state economy each week based on Treasury data cited by Josh Frydenberg. Yet while businesses receive assurances from the federal government that they will be supported, the comparative silence on welfare and a bungled vaccine roll-out deliver a double punch for vulnerable working-class Australians, students and front-line workers.

Beyond an expansion of short-term disaster pay, Perkins articulated that the day of action coheres around broader welfare demands to ensure “free early education and childcare, [social security payments of] $80 a day, and a [long-term] moratorium on evictions;” recognising the long-term instability into which people will be thrown by the current lockdown. 

Appropriate childcare and free early education goes to the heart of the gendered aspect of the lockdown, with domestic labour and childcare falling largely to women who are then unable to work.

The Welfare Action Group is also demanding more support to essential food providers like Foodbank NSW, who have been distributing emergency relief packages at an increased rate of 210% to locked-down areas in Greater Sydney. 

Additionally, demands for a more comprehensive support plan for renters recognises the urgency of housing stress in locked-down cities. Analysis published by real estate website Domain outlined that ​​”there are no suburbs in locked-down Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide where a single renter could afford the median home on the COVID-19 Disaster Payment without being in housing stress”. 

Housing stress occurs when rent accounts for over 30% of a person’s weekly income – which would be $180 for a single renter on the $600 support payment. The only neighbourhoods in NSW with that median rent level are the unit markets in regional Glen Innes and remote Cobar. 

Currently there exists no uniform support for struggling renters beyond a 60 day moratorium on evictions in Sydney, something Perkins argues is far more pressing to address than the rent subsidy payments for landlords introduced by the State Government. As of mid-July, landlords could apply for state government relief of up to $1500 if they decrease rent for impacted tenants.

Perkins said that this “doesn’t address the reality of the relationship between many tenants and their landlords – who flat out say no [to rent reduction requests],” and proposed that “subsidies should go to renters who cannot afford it… a precondition [of being able to afford rent] should not be having a good or nice landlord.” Student accommodation fees and a freeze on mortgage payments also constitute part of the Action Group’s demands. 

While Perkins said that the campaign is somewhat “limited in scope due to lockdown, [the Welfare Action Group is] trying to get as much attention around [it] online as possible,” and alluded to future actions involving local members and collaboration with various social security advocacy organisations.

You can sign the petition here and learn more about the USyd Welfare Action Group here.