The Goonellabah Estate
The Goonellabah estate is a definable pocket of low income households in a mixed income suburb of an Australian country town. This story is about an innovative approach to provide incoming earning opportunities and which achieved great outcomes. This program was developed by a State Housing Authority in collaboration with an employment focussed NGO.
A participatory action research project identified that a key area of need was for residents to have access to unskilled casual work.
A critical review of a previous employment initiative showed that a traditional 'job creation' model that employed a number of residents as ‘workers’ for the duration of a specific program was deficient in a number of ways, including:
- It did not respond to the residents desires for casual work opportunities. The long term unemployed have usually developed survival systems and life styles that make full time employment an unattractive proposition. The potential for earning small amounts to supplement benefits is though highly desirable.
- There was no opportunity for residents to take personal responsibility for executing a work program. The majority of ‘employment programs’ result in ballooning labour costs, and the continuation of a ‘master/servant’ attitude to work.
The general concept was to enable residents to provide fixed quotes for work that they would undertake in the manner of a subcontractor, but within a supportive environment. This was seen to be necessary for two reasons:
- To ensure that even within a ‘supportive environment’ employees gained experience in being responsible for own decisions.
- That the quotes provided to the Housing Authority for work required were attainable, resulting in a predictable cost. In collaboration with a local NGO, the social housing authority provided:
- $40,000 for the NGO to engage a building foreman/supervisor
- A budget of $50,000 to be spent on upgrading houses in the area.
- Regular maintenance and planned works required by the Housing Authority to be directed to the employment program for implementation.
The initial part of the contracting process was as per standard procedures for contracting work to an authorised contractor/supplier. In this case the NGO was a registered supplier who directly employed a licensed builder as part of the program. The process would commence with the Housing Authority:
- identifying the work required, eg. Fence, deck, drainage project.
- Preparing an office estimate
- Requesting the NGO to provide a fixed quote for the work
- Comparing the quote with the office estimate and, if within acceptable limits, instruct the contractor to carry out the work.
It was once the quotation had been approved that the program differed from usual building practice.
The Program co-ordinator distributed a ‘flyer’ to all houses advising of the opportunity for work on the specific projects available. The flyer listed a specific date and time in which interested residents had to attend at the ‘Job Access Centre’ where the work would be allocated.
Before the meeting the builder wrote up on a board or flip chart each subsection of the work, any drawings or diagrams available and the number of people expected to carry out that subsection. For example, a deck extension to a house might comprise:
- Marking out, digging holes, and pouring concrete - 1 person
- Constructing the framework - 2 people
- Constructing the roof and railings - 2 people
- Painting - 2 people
The potential workers identifed which parts of the job they were interested in, and the meeting self selects those who will be given the opportunity. By not ‘allocating’ the work, but simply facilitating the meeting to select who has the work empowers and enables the residents to make decisions. This was always done civilly and with little problem. The tendency was for the group to ensure that all got some work. On the occasions where there were too many for the work available, the group developed a general understanding amongst itself that those that missed out this time round, would get work the next time.
Once the potential workers were identified, the co-ordinator or builder went through the work required in more detail with each sub group, requesting that they estimate the time it would take them to carry out the specific work. The co-ordinator assisted them in the process, discussing the parameters of what was required. This included making an estimate of time to erect any scaffold that might be required, cleaning up etc. In the majority of cases, the workers determined very closely the same amount of time as had been previously estimated. If there were discrepancies, there was a contingency sum within the original quote, or else if unacceptably different, the work was offered to another. Once a time agreement had been determined, the workers signed a pre-prepared pro forma performance agreement indicating the time agreed to, the date at which their section of work was required, and the total gross payment due to them at completion.
The principle hurdle to be overcome was that it was not possible to engage residents as contractors in their own right. None carried appropriate insurance cover, and a statutory agency such as a Housing authority could not be placed in the position of employing ‘grey’ labour.
A secondary problem was having to pay casual award rates, which for the work required was considerably more than the residents generally realised when carrying out casual work in the ‘grey’ market.
Both these hurdles were overcome by a local NGO becoming both a registered contractor to undertake Government work, and to be a casual labour employer. The process developed in collaboration between these two bodies enabled the Authority to have certainty around the cost of works identified, and for residents to gain access to casual work. A new worker scheduled to carry out a section of work, who had not previously had work with the program, was required to complete the standard forms to become a casual worker with the NGO. Starting the job was conditional on completion of the forms for formal engagement.
The early trials of the program identified a number of areas that required ‘fine tuning’.
Workers tended to estimate in ‘days’ not hours. However, as they were not used to working a full day, they often did not actually put in a full days work. This was overcome by simply advising at the beginning of the allocation process that all work was based on a seven hour day. Thus, as rates are predetermined by award rates, a days work is 7 times the award rate.
The majority were used to getting cash in hand payments at the completion of any work they carried out. Having to complete a time sheet based on their agreement, and then not getting paid until the regular NGO pay run was difficult for many. Furthermore, tax was often deducted. It thus became part of every employment session to explain with a large calendar when they were expected to carry out the work, the actual pay date, and the probable tax that will be deducted.
Having over come the initial teething problems the majority became used to the process, and new comers gained comfort from the fact that the ‘old hands’ seemed happy with the arrangement.
Obviously some spent longer working than their agreed time. This was especially the case at the start of the program. The majority were used to a pretty relaxed day. We played hardball. We discussed why the work might have taken longer, whether there were any unforeseen incidents that prevented the work being carried out in the agreed time. If there was no real reason why the activity might have taken longer than anticipated, no mercy was given. The intention was not to get the lowest price, but to ensure a fair price is paid for expected work.
Over 19months, the project generated some impressive outcomes.
- 63 people were employed on on-estate work
- 11 people found either full-time or substantial part-time work off the estate
- 26 obtained casual work off the estate
- 4 people undertook accredited training
Value for money
There is a relatively high turnover of residents on the estate, especially in the newly privatised houses which tend to attract low income itinerant people renting the properties purchased by small investors. It is of course almost impossible to place a dollar value on the ‘worth’ of the project, but as the asset value of the ‘bricks and mortar’ is conditional on the social conditions of the neighbourhood, it is probable that the program has contributed greatly towards the overall well being of the estate. This in turn reflecting in the increasing prices obtained in house sales.
The process was administratively complex and required a high degree of understanding on the part of the builder/surpervisor. To be successful the person in this role has to be aware that the name of the game is not just ‘getting the job done’ but enabling people that often have very low skills. After a year the cost of work undertaken was similar to that provided by external contractors with the exception of the salary for the licensed builder. If what is being looked for is the cheapest fence, or deck, it is not viable. However, as a mechanism to engage people who have chronic self esteem problems, lack skills, have little experience in the work force and give them the opportunity to earn some money, realise that they are capable, develop new skills, be involved in a group decision making process, and make commitments to achieve those ends, the process has proved to be remarkably successful.
- It meets the needs of the residents for casual employment opportunities, without them having to make a long term (ie number of months) commitment to an employment program.
- It ensures that all workers are properly insured, and that the Housing Authority is not engaged in employing within the ‘grey’ market.
- It provides a secure environment in which residents can make short term commitments, that they feel able to keep.
There are numerous storeys of individuals initially only willing to ‘dig the holes’ or ‘wash the wall’ and later over time willing and eager to take on painting or even construction.
The program is eminently reproducible.
A short video made by residents can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/user/DrMartinButcher#p/u/18/EZ88ItSjJjI