Senate debates

Monday, 13 February 2017


Social Security Legislation Amendment (Youth Jobs Path: Prepare, Trial, Hire) Bill 2016; Second Reading

8:23 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise tonight to also contribute to the debate on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Youth Jobs Path: Prepare, Trial, Hire) Bill that was introduced in 2016. This bill contains two measures that relate to the Youth Jobs PaTH Program, announced in the 2016-17 budget. These include the exemption of the fortnightly incentive payment of $200 from being counted as income so as to not affect the income support payments of the internship participants and the suspension of income support for up to 26 weeks for young people hired under a youth bonus wage subsidy so that they are not required to reapply if they find themselves unemployed through no fault of their own within the 26-week period. I will come back to that through-no-fault-of-their-own clause.

The Greens will not be supporting the passage of this legislation. We have a number of concerns with this legislation. Our key concerns with the PaTH program are related to: the limited remuneration the internship participants would receive; the possibility of existing employees being displaced and 'interns' being churned; the limited protections provided to the internship participants; and whether the internships are genuinely voluntary. We are also concerned that much of the PaTH program is not covered by the legislation. The bill is lacking a lot of detail. That is a key concern, as well. For example, the fortnightly incentive payment of $200 is not provided for in this bill. The Department of Employment, in answer to one of my questions on notice during the inquiry into the bill, said that this measure would not be included in legislation. This should ring alarm bells for everybody as it means that a future government, or this one, for this matter, at some point in time could decide to reduce the amount of incentive payment to be paid to internship participants.

Given we have concerns that internship participants may receive less than the minimum wage—in some cases as little as $4 an hour for their labour under the proposed parameters, the amount participants would be paid without the incentive payment or with a reduced incentive payment would not be acceptable. Because the incentive payment is not included in the legislation there is also no provision for it to be indexed over time. This means that the real value of the payment may not be maintained into the future and young jobseekers will be expected to live off even less. It would be even lower than the minimum wage.

The legislation also does not prescribe when a business hosting an 'intern' can ask the young jobseeker to work. This means the business may require an intern to work outside standard hours without having to pay them any prescribed penalty rates. This could lead to businesses overlooking existing employees for overtime or for work outside standard powers and, instead, require an intern to work. This will lead to employees conditions being undermined and interns being exploited. It could also lead to existing employees being displaced for interns, as the business will be in receipt of a youth bonus wage subsidy of up to $6,500 for intern participants that they offer an employment position to. For more disadvantaged jobseekers, this subsidy goes up to $10,000. The possibility of such displacement increases in workplaces where levels of employment fluctuate frequently and where there are a large number of casual workers, as these factors make it difficult to identify where displacement is occurring.

There is also concern that instead of a business filling a vacancy in the workplace following an internship placement, they may just continue to engage interns under the trial stage of the PaTH program, receiving $1,000 for each intern they engage. If this happens, businesses will be abusing the public purse in order to save a few pennies. It will also undermine the highest stage of the program, which is supposed to see young jobseekers employed by the businesses they intern with. We are not convinced that the checking processes will be adequate to identify this churn process. The bottom line is that youth unemployment should not be used as an excuse to provide cheap labour sources for business. This is a poor way to address the fact that there simply are not enough jobs for young people.

One way to ensure the participants are paid minimum wage would be to limit the number of hours internship participants could work in a fortnight. It is proposed at 50 hours. It would need to be kept at 30 hours to meet minimum wage standards. There should also be rules around when intern participants can work to ensure that they are not pressured into working non-standard hours.

The Australian Greens are deeply concerned about the lack of protections provided in the legislation and, otherwise, to intern participants because they are not classified as employees. The health and safety protections for the participants are, in our opinion, inadequate. Given the participants are not employees, it is possible they will not be covered by laws governing health and safety in the states and territories. There are concerns regarding insurance cover that will apply to the participants, including that it will not be to the same level of cover as is provided to employees under the schemes of the states and territories.

As ACOSS said in its submission to the inquiry into this bill:

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

In this regard it is necessary that internship participants have access to adequate compensation cover in the event of an accident. The department's current cover for employment program participants is inadequate, in the view of the Australian Greens. We have seen the problems with Work for the Dole. As an aside, I am pleased the government has recognised that Work for the Dole has been an inadequate, unsuccessful program and cut it back quite a bit, but this program is not an adequate alternative.

There is also the question of whether the internships are genuinely voluntary. This is a really important point because it is a point that the government stresses. I have raised concerns about this previously, including at estimates last year. We are concerned that young jobseekers may be forced to include an internship placement in their plan. They would be required to do that by their jobactive service provider, meaning that the young jobseeker might face penalties if they did not comply with the requirements of their plan.

The government has legislation—one of its many pieces of legislation around jobseeker compliance—where people would possibly subject to further penalties if they did not agree to their job plan. If job service providers say something should be part of a job plan, what leg do young people have to stand on in the event that they disagree? There is nothing in the bill before us today to alleviate this concern. Nowhere does it state that placements are voluntary and there will be no penalties for failing to attend or withdrawing from a placement. This also rings alarm bells because it means a future government, or in fact this government at some later stage, could decide to make the trial stage of the PaTH program mandatory or dispense penalties to young jobseekers who fail to comply with the government's wishes.

In their submission to the inquiry into the bill, the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network Australia and the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia raised concerns regarding the authority some migrants and refugees confer upon service providers acting for the government, and the potential for those migrants and refugees to 'regard the presentation of what is actually a voluntary option as a requirement that must be followed'. It is imperative that it is appropriately communicated to all potential internship participants that the trial stage of the PaTH program is voluntary and they can choose whether or not they wish to participate.

A number of other measures have been left out of the legislation. These include any details regarding the Prepare stage of the PaTH program, a definition of the term 'internship', any details about penalties for the displacement of existing employees and/or churn of interns, and an evaluation strategy for the PaTH program. All the measures outlined so far should have been included in the bill to ensure that they are scrutinised properly and subject to legislation. We need to be able to scrutinise those measures that have been left out but were clearly outlined by government as part of this program. By excluding them from the legislation, the government is keeping the details of the PaTH program hidden from the parliament, in the sense that we cannot scrutinise them properly. Nor can we ask questions, and the public are not able to comment on that process officially. Given its potential to impact young people significantly, this detail should be in the legislation and the information should be publicly available.

I note that the majority committee report of the inquiry into the bill says that the Department of Employment is adjusting the design of the Prepare stage of the PaTH program based on the feedback it received to its discussion paper on that stage. It is a shame that feedback was not requested on the other two stages of the PaTH program. Based on the submissions to the inquiry into the bill, I imagine a number of concerns would have been brought to the department's attention. The PaTH program focuses on the employability of young people, which demonstrates that the PaTH program is another example where the government is ignoring the real problem, and that is the lack of available jobs for young people.

We know from Anglicare Australia's jobs availability snapshot, published just last year, that there were 6.33 people for every low-skilled job available in May last year. The situation is even worse in Tasmania and South Australia, where there were 9.39 and 10.62 people respectively for every low-skilled job. This alone disproves the government's rhetoric that if jobseekers just tried hard enough they would be able to get a job. Jobseekers are disproportionately affected by the lack of low-skilled, entry-level jobs, as they often have limited work experience. Those from regional areas, migrants and refugees have it tougher still. The government's response by way of this PaTH program is unlikely to lead to the creation of the new jobs that are so desperately needed in order to provide ongoing employment opportunities for young people. This program employs people for less than the minimum wage in areas where there simply are not enough jobs. What example does it set for young people when we push them out into these so-called internships for below the minimum wage?

The PaTH program is not a novel idea either. It has been based in part on two programs from overseas: the UK YES scheme and the Irish JobBridge program. Both of these schemes have had significant problems, and the Irish scheme has been discontinued. I understand there have been significant problems with the UK scheme and significant changes. This does not provide us with much hope for the success of the PaTH program, particularly given the unfavourable outcomes of the Irish JobBridge program, where participants were exploited and existing workers were displaced. I personally had an example given to me of a young woman who was displaced from a job in the UK under the UK scheme. The Greens have raised concerns that the PaTH program is destined to experience the same outcomes.

The government has cut funding to genuine apprenticeships and is now putting in place this poor substitute to proper training. It should instead be investing in wraparound, individualised supports and quality training programs. Reinvesting the money cut from apprenticeships in the VET system would be a step in the right direction. It should also abandon its enduring plans to throw young people off income support for four weeks plus the ordinary waiting period, which is five weeks. This place has shown time and again that it does not support this policy, and yet the government still will not abandon it.

When the government talks about a young person leaving a job 'through no fault of their own', this is another poorly defined example of 'through no fault of their own'. Young people, if they are being bullied and harassed in work, if they are being asked to do unreasonable activities, if they are being asked to work non-standard hours, it is highly likely that they will be worried and scared and might leave that job, and will that be defined as 'through no fault of their own'?

The unfortunate part is that, the longer the government waits to act in relation to youth unemployment and to genuinely develop the jobs that young people can go into it, the worse it is going to get. Youth unemployment will continue to grow until policy settings are corrected to enable an alternative outcome. If the government does not act soon, they will be locking this generation out of secure work for a long time to come. More and more young people, and also as they grow older, are continuing in temporary, insecure, part-time work rather than secure, longer term work. That is what we are locking this future generation into.

We will have many questions in the committee stage because, as I said, this legislation only implements a part of the PaTH program. It also does not guarantee the $200 into the future. There is no indexation there. We are not convinced by the government's responses to the question of what they are going to do about addressing issues like churn, like ensuring that existing employees are not put off so that younger people—being paid less than the minimum wage while doing 'training' and getting work experience—can have a job.

If I was working in one of those areas that are likely to take on these internships, I would be very worried about my future employment, because, if an employer can get a younger person, get $1,000 and get a worker much cheaper, that is probably going to be incentive enough, for some of these businesses that will only take these people on, for existing employees to lose their jobs and be replaced by these interns.

It is good that the government is looking at how they can address youth unemployment and get experience for young workers, but this is highly likely to result in young people, young workers, being exploited and does not address the issue of jobs into the future. It does not develop new jobs into the future. When you have 6.33 people applying for each job, it is quite depressing, and this does not fix that.

I will be taking this into the committee stage. I am sure there are a lot of other senators who have a lot of other questions about this legislation.


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