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Monday, 13 February 2017
Page: 725


Senator CAROL BROWN (Tasmania) (20:41): I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Youth Jobs Path: Prepare, Trial, Hire) Bill 2016. I want to say at the outset that I believe this legislation to establish the Youth Jobs PaTH program is, as many other speakers before me have indicated, poorly constructed, and I fear that it will place young Australian jobseekers at risk of exploitation.

Doing all we can to provide young people with opportunities to find work will always be worthy of our time and consideration in this place. Youth unemployment is a huge problem. In my home state of Tasmania we have among the highest rates of youth unemployment in Australia. In some parts of Tasmania the unemployment rate among 15- to 24-year-olds is as high as 27 per cent. We have a youth unemployment crisis.

We are failing our young people. The Liberals' youth PaTH program will put young jobseekers at risk and is fundamentally flawed in its approach to addressing youth unemployment. The program does not create additional jobs for young Australians. It merely places our young people on temporary internships without proper wages or conditions. Labor believes that the pathway to good, well-paid and secure jobs for young jobseekers is best done through investing in early childhood education, university and TAFE and genuine experiences that come from traineeships and apprenticeships. We want programs that genuinely help our young people find work. But this legislation that is before us here tonight does not provide sufficient safeguards for young people, who are among the most vulnerable workers in today's labour market. It has many, many deficiencies.

There is, as has already been said in the debate here tonight, very little detail on just how the Prepare Trial Hire program, the PaTH program, will operate in practice. While I understand the need for flexibility, too much is left to regulation and administrative discretion. You would think that the government would have tried to get such important legislation right. You would think that the government would have tried to get this legislation right. But, while they talk about jobs, they do not have a very good record on creating jobs. We know that the Work for the Dole scheme has not had much success. On the government's own figures, nearly 90 per cent of participants in the Work for the Dole scheme are not in full-time work three months after completing the program. We must not see a situation where young unemployed Australians are given false hope and work for under award wages. This program does not create additional jobs; instead, it will subsidise employers to hire interns who will not have sufficient protections. We have heard about that in this debate tonight.

These shortcomings and the many concerns from a range of community groups were outlined in submissions to the Senate's Education and Employment Legislation Committee received in the short amount of time the committee was given to look at this legislation. In their dissenting report, Labor senators noted that the government had not provided adequate legislative support to assure members or the community that this program will operate well. Labor's dissenting report made five recommendations, including that the bill not be supported in its current form until the genuine concerns about the overall program have been completely addressed. As I have said, there are many concerns about this legislation and, if it was to be passed in its present form, it would see a flawed program come into effect. We want to do everything that we can to improve the job skills of young people, but this program falls well short. We must take note of these concerns and act on them. The government wants to rush this program through this place, and that was highlighted when the Senate committee refused to hold public hearings into this legislation.

One of the major concerns about this program is that the payments that would be received by participants would be well below the national minimum wage. Participants would be paid an extra $100 a week on top of income support. This would mean they would be performing work in companies making a profit, but they would be earning less than the national minimum wage. As the submission to the Senate committee from the Australian Council of Social Service noted:

Payment rates and hours of work for the internships mean that many people will work for less than (the equivalent of) the minimum wage:

Since participants will be working whether 'employed' or not, they should be properly remunerated.

Fortnightly hours for internships should be capped at 30 instead of 50, so that participants are remunerated at least to the equivalent of the relevant hourly minimum wage.

In its submission, the Australian Council of Trade Unions said that youth unemployment was one of Australia's biggest challenges and that the Youth Jobs PaTH program would be ineffective in dealing with it. The ACTU went on to say:

There must also be significant concern however that PaTH may serve to undermine the minimum wage system. The current program settings, hours worked and additional payments per fortnight, mean that the interns in this program are paid below minimum wage, potentially creating pressure on existing employees' wages or conditions. The ACTU is concerned that the scheme may encourage employers to replace existing minimum wage workforces with government sponsored interns or to reduce their wages or conditions. Interns are not paid superannuation or subject to worker's compensation and so represent a significant saving to employers when compared to regular employees.

The ACTU was also very fearful about the exploitation of vulnerable young people by unscrupulous employers. It feared that many young people may receive little or poor training on the job and that, when they finish their poorly-paid internship, they would be no more employable than they were when they started. The ACTU was worried that employers may take on many interns just to get the $1,000 sign-up fee. The union body also detailed a similar scheme in the United Kingdom, and we have heard about this in the debate that has thus far been held tonight. The United Kingdom scheme, launched in 2013, was ended 18 months later with fewer than half the estimated placements being made and with no clear increase in real job placements, but here we are in Australia with the minister putting forward a program that is clearly lacking. A number of concerns have been expressed by community groups and the labour movement, and this government is moving forward with no response to the concerns that have been put forward.

Jobs Australia also raised concerns with the minimal rate of pay. It pointed out that all Australian workers are legally entitled to receive the minimum wage and that, if this does not happen, young people in the program would be at increased risk of being exploited. Jobs Australia recommended that the payment should be legislated fully and not in the undefined manner of the legislation before us today.

I want to turn now to the inadequate protections in the bill. There are concerns that young people who take part in the Youth Jobs PaTH program may not be adequately covered by state workers' compensation and other legislated workplace protections. As I understand this legislation before us, interns will be classified as volunteers, despite the fact that they will perform work tasks, and this throws their protections into doubt. It is vital that a program designed to put 120,000 young jobseekers into workplaces has adequate protections for them. The Australian Council of Social Service said:

There is no legislative assurance that the health and safety of participants in the internships will be adequately protected …

     …      …      …

The Department has its own scheme for participants in employment programs but we understand this generally provides lesser benefits than State Workers Compensation schemes, no periodic payments, and no entitlement to rehabilitation.

Either participants should be covered by State Workers Compensation scheme or equivalent coverage should be negotiated by the Department.

The bill before us and the trial stage of the PaTH program seek to introduce government subsidised internships. Yet they fail to give legal definition to the term 'intern'. Labor, along with a number of organisations, believes this is problematic. Uniting Care Australia noted in their submission that they are concerned about how these internships will be viewed and treated in employment terms. Interns Australia were worried that, because the term 'intern' is not defined in Australian employment law, there would be great confusion about the rights of participants in the Youth Jobs PaTH program. This gives us nothing but uncertainty in regard to the legal rights and legal consequences that may affect young people and workforces. It fails to prescribe the standards and workplace protections that are offered to ordinary Australian workers. As highlighted in the submission made by Interns Australia:

If interns are to be considered as legally different to employees, their rights must be clearly stated.

Failing to give clear definition to the terms under the scheme creates an environment of great vulnerability for young workers.

Labor will not stand by while young interns may be required to undertake the same work as other employees for little or no pay, where there is no further skill, training or education on offer. Already, we have seen many employers and industries adopt the trend of offering young people internships that do not have clearly defined employment relationships. As parents and as members of this place, we should be incredibly cautious about this trend, which is fast becoming part of a widespread culture in Australian workplaces. Many of these emerging internships are unpaid and target vulnerable young people with little or no experience in the paid workforce.

As I said previously, the bill in its current form is poorly constructed. In particular, it does nothing to address the 'churn and burn'—which we heard about in previous contributions tonight—of young workers by employees and businesses, which allows them to exploit one worker after the other to milk the program for their benefit. Instead, it provides both financial incentives through subsidies, and vulnerable labour to workplaces to exploit. These concerns were highlighted by Interns Australia, who noted that many employers under the program would be encouraged to hire an individual and receive a subsidy, only to terminate their agreement in order to hire someone else and receive the subsidy again.

On top of this, the government has still failed to explain how they will prevent employers from churning through interns every 12 weeks. The Liberals' Youth Jobs PaTH Program may cause systemic, long-term and cultural damage to the job market for other young jobseekers. To allow this to happen would be a betrayal of our young people. ACOSS have made clear their concerns, saying that the 'internship positions created under this program are likely to displace paid jobs for other young people'.

Mr Acting Deputy President, I know you are very familiar with the Liberal Party policies at the last federal election. During the election campaign the government talked about the jobs and growth that they would create. Regrettably, it was all talk. They have failed dismally. The problem is not just unemployment but also underemployment. As the Australian Unemployed Workers Union pointed out in their submission to the Senate inquiry, it is not a matter of making young people more employable; it is about having the jobs for them. It said:

Currently according to the most recent data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Department of Employment, there are 19 job seekers competing for every job vacancy. When you consider low-skill jobs— the sort of jobs young unemployed Australians will most realistically be considered for—this rate is even higher. Clearly, it is this dearth of low-skill jobs in the Australian labour market that has been the leading cause for Australia's youth unemployment crisis.

It is clear we have a youth unemployment crisis. The Liberals' Youth Jobs PaTH Program is a path to nowhere. There are over 260,000 young people unemployed in Australia. These young jobseekers need real support and real solutions. The creation of opportunities for young people in the workplace, however, is never achieved through exploitation. I doubt that this program will see any more young people getting full-time work. In fact, if you look at the record of the Abbott-Turnbull government, you will see programs that they have implemented or raised as an option that have not worked. They do not work. This, again, is a program that will not see any more young people getting full-time work. I fear it will put young jobseekers, who are already vulnerable, in positions where they will be exploited.

In drawing my contribution to a close, I will outline the main concerns the Labor Party has with the bill before us. There is no firm definition of an intern. The participant is likely to have only a reasonable prospect of a job. A large number of participants could be used within companies at the one time, with little sanction for employers that might churn through PaTH participants after the engagement concludes. Large numbers of interns could completely negate the need for existing employees in certain sectors to work at certain times—for instance, on weekends, which would reduce access to penalty rates for these employees. PaTH participants are considered to be volunteers in some jurisdictions, and I have talked about that, as have many other senators in this debate. They are considered to be volunteers in some jurisdictions, affecting the way worker compensation systems would treat participants in the event of a workplace incident. In concluding, I fear that this bill will put young jobseekers who are already vulnerable in a position where they will be exploited, and our young people deserve better than this bill that is before us.