After nearly 15 years navigating the system meant to help Australians find jobs, Nathan’s mental health was so badly damaged that he was unable to work.
The 46-year-old says the private companies profiting from the multibillion-dollar job services industry did little to help him find work throughout that time, but documents show they legally made thousands of dollars whenever he found employment for himself.
His case illustrates some of the anguish jobseekers have experienced with the privatised employment market, and the perverse incentives built into a system that allow job providers to profit handsomely while the onus to comply with “mutual obligations” remains entirely with their clients.
“It’s one thing to say Centrelink just thinks of you as a number, but it’s another thing to be suddenly a commodity for these companies,” says Nathan, who did not want his surname published.
Australia’s privatised employment services “market” has been reformed several times since the late 1990s. The latest incarnation, Workforce Australia, commenced last month and has been plagued by problems, including several cases revealed by the Guardian. It is now being examined by a parliamentary committee.
Nathan saw the system change, but ultimately stay the same. “They get all the carrots, we get all the sticks,” he says.
Nathan doesn’t want to be defined by his disabilities, nor his childhood. He lives with anxiety and depression and complex grief and trauma. He lost his father to suicide at the age of 15. “I still miss him,” Nathan says.
For nearly a decade, one constant in his life was Max Employment, a subsidiary of the multinational Maximus, one of the biggest players in privatised job services. Over the next three years, it will be paid about $150m through Workforce Australia.
In 2008, Nathan moved from Sydney to Tasmania to be closer to family. He had been prescribed antidepressants, was out of work and was struggling.
Nathan says Max did little to help him in Sydney, and that didn’t change in Tasmania.
But he soon got a job at Southern Cross Television himself after spotting an ad in a newspaper.
Job agencies get an “outcome payment” from the government when a jobseeker moves into work and maintains that employment. There is no requirement for them to have found the client the job. That’s on top of the hundreds of dollars they already get in “service fees” per client.
Freedom of information documents Nathan requested, seen by Guardian Australia, suggest Max Employment – now Max Solutions – claimed a $4,400 outcome payment for the job Nathan got himself.
Nathan complained, but the claim was legitimate.
In and out of work after he was made redundant from the TV job, Nathan found a part-time position in 2013 at a local radio station.
“There is no question the client found his own employment with LAFM,” Max Employment later told the Department of Employment, according to documents. “Max Employment delivered Post Placement Support to the client over the course of his employment,” it said.
Nathan recalls the “support” differently. Weeks into the job, he received an email from his Max Employment consultant asking him to sign a document confirming 13 weeks of employment.
He was offered a $50 “incentive payment” to do so, emails seen by Guardian Australia show.
Nathan says he told the consultant he believed the form was not accurate and didn’t sign it.
When he was at work the same day, he found his Centrelink payments, which he need to pay his rent, had been stopped for non-compliance with his mutual obligations.
“I’m having to take my whole lunch break off and stand out in the car park, distraught and in tears saying [to Centrelink], ‘Why have I been cut off?’” he recalls.
Documents obtained through freedom of information show Max Employment claimed a $980 outcome payment for the LAFM job. A departmental investigation found there were “slight administrative errors” but the claim was otherwise sound. Max kept the money.
Centrelink later “revoked” Max’s non-compliance report against Nathan – he had been accused of missing an appointment he knew nothing about.
But the saga exacerbated Nathan’s anxiety and depression. He later described it in a complaint to the Department of Employment as his “breaking point”.
Nathan filed a civil claim against Max Employment in the Tasmanian magistrates court in 2016. He was self-represented and says after parts of the case were struck out, he didn’t pursue it further.
Max Solutions did not respond to requests for comment.
Nathan’s numerous complaints to the department detail how he would turn up for scheduled meetings only to find the job agency not expecting him. He would be told to expect a phone appointment, but the call wouldn’t come.
Yet if he didn’t turn up or answer, his Centrelink payment would be stopped. He says once, back in 2007, he was made to walk more than 10km after a compulsory job interview. He couldn’t afford the bus home. He didn’t get the job.
There were countless meetings and courses, but Nathan says only once in nearly 15 years in the system did a job agency actually get him a job. That short-lived labour hire position teed up by Max Employment ended when he stopped getting shifts.
Nathan would get medical certificates that exempted him from his mutual obligations, but his complaints to the department show that sometimes the job agencies would call him anyway, further triggering his anxiety.
In January 2019, his frustrations came to a head after he informed his disability employment services provider, APM, he was unable to make an appointment the next day.
The state manager called Nathan back.
Nathan explained he had a prior engagement, and that he didn’t want to see APM until an existing complaint – over a “demerit point” penalty that should be removed from his record – had been resolved.
As the call went on, Nathan became increasingly frustrated, and then angry, yelling down the line: “You are affecting my mental health, OK?”
The manager initially insisted he attend, but later said he would consider if Nathan had a “reasonable excuse”.
Nathan berated him, saying, “You don’t find me work, you just piss me about”, before hanging up.
The following day Nathan received a text: his payments had been suspended.
Nathan tells Guardian Australia he had lost a friend to suicide that week. “I thought I could just say, ‘My mental health.’ Why did they have to know?”
APM is now the biggest employment services provider in Australia, garnering $330m in new contracts under Workforce Australia over the next three years.
A spokesperson said: “At APM we respect and protect client confidentiality and therefore [are] unable [to] discuss specific details related to individual participants. This is also in line with our requirements under the Privacy Act and [disability employment services] grant agreement.
“Regular audits confirm our staff comply with federal government [disability employment services] guidelines and contracting requirements.”
In a 2020 letter for his disability support pension claim, Nathan’s clinical psychologist wrote:: “A rather large, and in my opinion, unnecessary, stressor has unfortunately been due to his dealings with job agencies over the years.”
After outlining some of Nathan’s complaints, the psychologist adds: “My reasons for detailing the above is to paint a picture of the type of stressors that [Nathan] has had to unfairly endure on top of his own complicated grief.”
Unlike the majority of disability support pension claims, Nathan’s application was successful.
He’s relieved, but he’d rather be working. Even today, talking about his experiences still brings back traumatic memories. But he adds: “If the right people see my story, hopefully it can change something.”
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org