CANBERRA -- The Federal government's massive new 'internship' program for unemployed young people has come under fire from critics after Employment Minister Michaelia Cash confirmed at least part of the scheme will be compulsory.
A centrepiece of Tuesday's federal budget, the PaTH -- 'prepare, trial, hire' -- scheme will create opportunities for 120,000 intern placements for young people on unemployment payments. The $750 million program will give "intensive pre-employment skills training" including teamwork activities, presentation, technology literacy and job hunting skills; then place young people in trial internships of four to 12 weeks, with examples in budget papers including newsagents and supermarkets. Employers will be given financial benefits to take on interns, and larger payments if they actually employ that person after their internship ends.
Information in the budget papers states clearly that "participation in an internship placement will be voluntary for both job seekers and businesses," while a treasury official confirmed to The Huffington Post Australia on budget night that job seekers would not be forced into internships.
However, speaking on ABC 774 radio in Melbourne on Thursday, Cash said at least the first part of the program, the employability skills training, would be compulsory. She said the training would include "two blocks of three weeks, up to 25 hours a week."
"It will be compulsory for all young job seekers within the first five months of being in receipt of welfare," she said.
"It's part of your mutual obligation requirement. The alternative is this: we let our youth linger in welfare for the rest of their lives."
When 774 host Jon Faine asked whether non-attendance at the skills training workshops would affect welfare payments, Cash said "no" but said "there are already rules in place" for people who don't comply with welfare requirement rules.
"No, we'll be working through all of that. Why do you focus on the negatives?" she chided Faine.
Faine asked whether job seekers in isolated areas, or with extenuating circumstances limiting their travel, would be penalised for not attending the programs, and Cash said such circumstances would be taken into account.
Cash said businesses would have to commit to not displacing existing workers and replacing them with the lower-paid interns. She said the Department of Employment would be monitoring employers, and if they "rorted" the program, they would be struck from the list of eligible intern employers.
Here is the full 774 interview:
A spokesman for the Department of Employment confirmed the first stage of the program would only be compulsory for people who had been on welfare for more than five months, and that internships would be "completely voluntary." The spokesman said details of the program, to be launched in April 2017, were still being totally worked out; but the vision is that a job seeker would complete the job skills training, then register through an online portal where eligible employers would advertise internship positions. He also said there would be no penalties for welfare recipients who do not undertake an internship.
"Eligibility for income support payments and for jobactive are unchanged by the PaTH... As the internship is completely voluntary, there will be no penalties for job seekers who choose not to undertake an internship," the spokesman said.
The program has come under fire from the Greens, unions and internship groups. Job seekers would only receive $200 extra per fortnight, on top of their existing welfare payments, for working up to 25 hours a week.
“This internship program is a path to nowhere – it’s replacing existing entry-level jobs with a churn and burn scheme that gives business access to free, exploitable workers," said ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver.
“Paying young workers $4 per hour is not far above the rates in third world sweat shops – it’s outrageous and it puts our entire wage system at risk.”
The ACTU released figures stating that if someone on the Newstart allowance worked an additional 25 hours a week as an intern, they could earn a total $363.80 per week, $68.45 per week below the minimum wage. The intern would also not be eligible for conditions including sick leave, superannuation and penalty rates.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert told BuzzFeed "People shouldn’t be fooled by the rhetoric that this is voluntary."
"Because if a Job Service Provider puts it into a person’s job plan, it essentially becomes compulsory as penalties apply if someone doesn’t support their plan."