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Monday, 13 February 2017
Page: 729

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (21:01): Our entrenched high rate of youth unemployment is a social travesty, especially when it is a product of generational welfare dependency or leads to long-term unemployment. We can never rest in our efforts to tackle this. This Social Security Legislation Amendment (Youth Jobs Path: Prepare, Trial, Hire) Bill is a positive step in helping alleviate this by putting in place formal steps, incentives and protections. We are therefore supportive of it in principle, particularly given that the government could implement this program without legislative reform. If the government went down that path, it would mean the fortnightly incentive payments the scheme provides to participants will be treated as additional income and taxed accordingly. It would also potentially impact their Centrelink payments. This would undermine the intention of helping the jobseeker afford the costs that come with applying for or starting a new job.

As it stands, the PaTH program aims to give underskilled young people the abilities and confidence they need to approach a potential employer and secure a job. This is a modest ambition perhaps but one which, for some of these young people, probably seems unattainable. It is something other people can do, not them. The program provides eligible young jobseekers with intensive job-hunting and interview preparation training, followed by a short internship placement. It provides $200 a fortnight to offset travel and other job related costs, such as appropriate work wear, and it provides incentives for employers to take a chance and hire someone with no experience and little to recommend them other than a willingness to succeed. We think this is a very good start.

If it is well implemented and well used, the youth jobs PaTH program will also benefit businesses by linking them to enthusiastic young people willing to learn and who can grow with the business. These are all positives in our book, but we do have a few concerns and will seek assurances on these from the minister during the committee stage of the bill. For instance, the 26-week suspension of a young jobseeker's income support may become problematic as this is also how long the wage subsidies to an employer will run. We know that most employers will engage with this program for the right reasons, but we have also seen too many instances in recent times where major youth employers, such as Grill'd, 7-Eleven and Pizza Hut, have underpaid staff and appear to view young people not as a valued resource but as a source of expendable cheap labour.

Whatever safeguards we put in place, there will undoubtedly be employers who will be lured by the subsidy on offer and will be intent on exploiting it. This makes the 26-week period for both the duration of the subsidy and the young employee's income support suspension problematic in instances where the employer takes on an intern as cheap labour and then dumps them soon after the wage subsidy ends. To avoid disadvantaging young people who have entered these positions with the best intentions, we would prefer to see the suspension period for income support extended beyond 26 weeks. Nine to 12 months would be appropriate if they remain employed with the same eligible employer. This small change would avoid vulnerable young people having to reapply for their income support and serve out a waiting period should they lose their job through no fault of their own after the 26-week suspension period ends.

Given these jobseekers are not classified as employees and, in many cases, may be ignorant of their rights, there is potential for the jobseeker to be exploited in other ways too—for example, by being asked to work excessive or non-standard hours or undertake potentially risky tasks without sufficient training. We would expect that each jobseeker's training will include instructions on their rights as well as their obligations in the workplace and anticipate that the minister will provide a guarantee that this will be the case. We will also be seeking assurances that providers will work with young people to determine what industries or roles appeal to them, even in the face of a 'dunno', and steer them towards suitable internships that will spark their interest and keep them engaged in their new-found job.

While the scheme will be voluntary, it is important that this does not become simply a placement program where jobseekers are just slotted into available positions without due consideration of their aspirations. While many people view employment as black and white, that a job is a job and that you should be thankful for anything you can get, the reality is people do not tend to stay in jobs when they are unhappy. We should not set these young people up for inadvertent failure by pushing them into training and a job in which they have no interest or desire to engage. To do this would be a waste of taxpayers' $752 million investment in the program. For this program to have the best chance of success, we must not only empower these young people with enhanced skills and confidence about their ability to win and keep a job but also importantly ignite their passion by helping steer them towards industries and jobs where they can see themselves in the long term. We want these jobseekers to feel inspired to keep building their skills and create previously unimagined career paths that ideally will keep them off benefits and help break the suffocating cycle of intergenerational welfare dependency that so often only serves to steal the aspirations and futures of our young people.

In closing, this bill has the potential to change the life path of young people for the better. That said, it is crucial that we do not take our eyes off the ball once the scheme is up and running. To that end, I indicate that I intend to move an amendment to have the program reviewed within two years to ensure there are no unforeseen and harmful circumstances.