By ERWIN CHLANDA
My Pathway, a company engaged by the Federal Government to conduct a work for the dole scheme in the Sandover area north-east of Alice Springs, is raking in fees for people who do not turn up or fail to work the required periods, and make out they are running programs in outstations while in fact there are none.
These allegations are made by Luke Sparrow, who was sacked by My Pathway just days short of the end of his six months probation period when, as he claims, the company discovered he was keeping a diary of improper practices.
Paul Synnott, CEO of My Pathway, says his company takes very seriously the allegations raised by Mr Sparrow but refutes them “in their entirety as false and mischievous. We are proud of the work we do, serving to build stronger communities.”
Mr Synnott responded to key aspects of Mr Sparrow’s claims.
Mr Sparrow, an Indigenous person, says the few programs that were under way during his time lacked meaning and purpose, such as building a “softball field that has taken over two years to be half finished” and erecting other structures on which only a white employee of My Pathway was working.
This is against a background of keen interest by the population in getting skills that can be applied locally or outside the community. Hardly anybody has been assisted to achieve that, says Mr Sparrow about his time at Ampilatwatje.
These allegations are in some ways similar to the ones included in an earlier report, in the Alice Springs News Online, when we gave right of reply to Cairns-based Leigh Pollard who provided some but not all the answers to questions we put to him.
“I was thrown into the job with no training, no induction, cultural understanding about the people or location,” says Mr Sparrow in a letter to the NT and Federal governments.
“There was no orientation, no time for a trial week of employment, no opportunity to meet the other employees.
“I was basically met by [an Alice Springs based manager] for a ‘chat’ then told [to start as] she doesn’t bother doing interviews as its too hard to find someone to fill these positions.
Mr Synnott replied: “We have robust recruitment, induction and training processes in place that our records show were applied in Mr Sparrow’s case, the same as any new employee.
“Mr Sparrow has suggested he was unfairly dismissed. There are avenues in place that Mr Sparrow can follow if he feels that is the case. To date we have not received any communications from him pursuing an unfair dismissal.”
Mr Sparrow said in his letter: “In the first week alone I noticed that the client’s files were not correct, the information didn’t add up to what was happening, including job plans … that had no signatures, no dates and were far out of date.
“[Some participants] could or should not be receiving income support as they had fallen off the system a long time ago, but they were still receiving income.
“More than 30% of the time [another employee] was calling up for appointments and there was nobody sitting in front of her, but she was still marking them down as attending, but nobody attended.
“That enables the participant to be paid [and] My Pathway [to] receive government money.
“[Another employee] marked off his time sheets for participants that did not attended his work for the dole activities but was nonetheless marking them down as attending so once again My Pathway would receive a payment.
“He was also notorious for marking people absent when they would refuse to attend non-culturally specific activities My Pathway deemed appropriate, and when participants would discuss this with him he would become belligerent, rude and intimidating.
“Many of these participants would come to me in their appointments and make formal complaints to me about this, which I would then forward this information onto [a manager] which she never took seriously or said to me as plain as ‘they do their activities or they get a Non-Attendance Record.
“My Pathway seemed to turn a blind eye to these [practices].
“I noticed that [an employee] was taking the back page (which was the page with the participants’ signatures) off the old job plan … and stapling it to the new one that she had printed out, thus making it seem that the participant had attended the appointment, when in fact no one had attended the appointment, and then contacting Centre Support and running through the usual yes/no questions – but it was all lies.
“These are legally binding documents that were being manipulated by her so My Pathway would receive payment for participant attendance which was not actually happening.
“I was shocked and confused. This happened daily and weekly for the first month and as she was going to run her activity centre she told me why she does this.
“Basically, if we, as the employment officer, put down a participant misses their appointment My Pathway does not get paid, so we take the last page (the signature page) and then staple it to the new job plan, thus My Pathways gets paid and no one is the wiser.”
Mr Synnott rejected the claim that My Pathway staff routinely doctored job plans and attendance records.
“The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet recently completed on‐site monitoring and evaluation of our services as an ordinary and regular part of its management of our Community Development Program contract for the region.
“That evaluation did not identify any concerns with our timesheets, job plans or appointment records.
“Further, the department has had an on the ground presence within the region, with a direct line of sight to our staff and daily operations. Any issues such as those claimed would have been immediately apparent to departmental staff.
“Our own regular internal checks have similarly not uncovered any such manipulation of records,” says Mr Synnott.
Mr Sparrow says after three weeks it became clear to him why Ampilatwatja and many other communities and outstations “are in such despair”.
He writes: “In communities like Irrultja, Utopia, Arlparra and many more there are no activities – none, yet on the job plan it says the participant will attend their activity by attending the (phone box) to see their activity supervisor for the mutual obligation activity.”
However, writes Mr Sparrow, there is no activity; 50% of the time there is no phone box; no activity supervisor; no service provided in that community at all by this service provider, My Pathway.
“Once [a staff member] started her women’s activity, which was knitting beanies for five hours a day.
“A job plan stipulates the mutual obligation for Work for the Dole which is five hours a day, twenty-five hours a week, fifty hours a fortnight. [The staff member] was signing off ladies from activities when they were not even there. She was signing off ladies when they had only been there for half an hour.
“She would not listen to their requests to do more culturally appropriate activities, and would suggest they paint so she could buy them at a (cheap as chips) price.
“Many of the ladies would be asked to be placed at Artists of Ampilatwatja, but because [the My Pathway staff] disliked the manager they refused to allow her to have any participants attend, to work or even be given a resume.
“They don’t want independent Indigenous people out there working for themselves or making change.”
Mr Synnott refutes that, saying My Pathway currently has four participants at the Ampilatwatja Art Centre.
About complaints from job seekers Mr Synnott says Mr Sparrow had not submitted any written complaints for action.
He also refutes that there are no suitable activities available for community residents: “There are a variety of activities available for participants across the North East Alice Region. Attendance levels at those activities provide an indication of their acceptance by community.
“We encourage community involvement in the development of new activities so that our activities continue to align with community aspirations. Recent examples include the new Fencing Project and the Housing Construction Project, which is aligned with developing skills so participants can secure employment on the new housing / maintenance roll out.”
That is in stark contrast to how Mr Sparrow describes the activity, claiming the construction of staff accommodation is in fact being done by a single white employee.
“The government has supplied thousands upon thousands of dollars at the expenses of the tax payer to purchase such items as tyre changing equipment, a metal fabrication folding machine, gardening equipment, wicking beds, raised garden beds, pallets of bricks and square tubing, propagation materials, soils and shade structures, hand held tools, trailers, cement mixers, hundreds of pairs of boots, work shirts, pants, thousands of dollars worth of sewing machines, art supplies, kitchenware and cooking implements.
“These items are locked away in sheds and out in the elements rusting away, as [the staff member] uses this as his own personal inventory and takes these items to fix his own property.
“At no time, has there been one program based on healthy living, healthy eating. No cooking classes, no gardening classes, no life skills programs, no training what so ever.
“Job plans just state ‘IF’ a course becomes available My Pathway ‘MAY’ assist. People are screaming out for knowledge, for skills based programs and My Pathway are doing nothing and have done nothing.”
Says Mr Synnott: “There is a stockpile of equipment that is not utilised for activities. We maintain a store of equipment from across the region, the purchase of which was fully approved and acquitted by the Department. This equipment is used as required across the Region’s activities.”