Social Security Legislation Amendment (Youth Jobs PaTH: Prepare, Trial, Hire) Bill 2016

08 November 2016

 I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Youth Jobs PaTH: Prepare, Trial, Hire) Bill 2016 and urge that it be referred to a Senate inquiry. As it stands, for young people the Youth Jobs PaTH is not a pathway to employment; potentially, it is a road to nowhere, an expressway to exploitation. The Youth Jobs PaTH (Prepare, Trial, Hire) Program was announced by the Turnbull government in the 2016-17 budget, and it is expected to take effect from April next year. The program, as we have heard, will provide jobseekers aged 17 to 24 with pre-employment training and placement in voluntary internships of four to 12 weeks, where they may work for 15 to 24 hours a week. Jobseekers will receive payments of $200 a fortnight on top of their current income support payments while they are participating in the Youth Jobs PaTH program. Businesses will be paid $1,000 to take on an intern, and then will receive a wage subsidy of between $6,500 and $10,000 if they hire them at the conclusion of their internship.

But the opposition, like many others in our community, have very real concerns about whether this program does in fact present a genuine opportunity for young people to gain meaningful employment, or whether it is just an opportunity for them to be exploited and again disappointed. We are now hearing this PaTH Program touted to be a success, much like Work for the Dole, but, as we have heard the member for Mallee say just a few speakers ago, that program in and of itself has not been the success it was touted to be, and unlike Work for the Dole, for the first time interns will be placed in the private sector, and they could be paid below award wages.

This bill implements a small part of the Youth Jobs PaTH Program; however, other legislation will be needed to establish the program in full. It is understood that the bulk of the Youth Jobs PaTH Program can be established by departmental direction and regulation, and this is something that Labor is seeking to clarify. In fact, there is much about this bill that needs clarification, and it really does warrant Senate scrutiny. This is such a vital and important part of our economy, of our culture. We are talking about the future of our young people. We should stop creating programs that just do not work, and do something meaningful instead. The bill contains the following measures: schedule 1 inserts a provision into the Social Security Act and the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 so that the fortnightly incentive payment is not counted as 'income' for social security or veterans' entitlements purposes; and schedule 2 amends the Social Security (Administration) Act to allow young people to suspend their payments if they are employed. They can restart them without reapplying if they lose their job through no fault of their own within 26 weeks.

Taken in isolation, these two measures in the bill are not controversial. However, the reality is that they form part of a broader new philosophy which could see young jobseekers exploited and really could undermine workforce standards. Labor would want make sure that participants were protected by health and safety measures and that no participant could be paid below award wages or the award wage equivalent, pursuant to the Fair Work Act. Labor welcomes additional resources being invested in youth employment, but the Youth Jobs Path program is not the best way to support young jobseekers or invest Commonwealth funds.

There are specific concerns with the program that I would like to raise. There is no firm definition of what an intern is under the program and what sectors they could be asked to work in. Large numbers of participants could be used within a company at one time with little sanction for employers that might churn through participants after the engagement concludes. Large numbers of interns could completely negate the need for existing employees in certain sectors, such as hospitality, to work at certain times, for instance on the weekends, reducing access to penalty rates for those people who are already employed. Youth Jobs PaTH participants are considered to be volunteers in some jurisdictions, affecting the way workers compensation systems would treat participants in the event of a workplace accident or incident.

This government has put little planning into the broader policy and there are many deficiencies in this Youth Jobs PaTH program. It is nothing but a response to a failing Work for the Dole program in which nearly 90 per cent of participants are unable to secure work after they finish the program—90 per cent! The Youth Jobs PaTH program has the potential for worker exploitation and undercutting of standards.

Youth unemployment is truly a scourge in our society. According to the Department of Employment youth unemployment is running at 12.8 per cent, with a total of 271,400 unemployed young people between the ages of 15 and 25. In my electorate of Paterson in the Hunter Valley it is even higher. In my first speech in this place I highlighted youth unemployment as one of my main policy areas of concern and one of the biggest concerns to our community in the Hunter region, particularly in the Port Stephens area. In July, youth unemployment in the Hunter region was 15.3 per cent, well above the national average of 12.8 per cent, but it has been as high as 21 per cent. Twenty-one per cent of our young people not being able to get a job—if that was the general rate across the population people would be up in arms. They would be protesting in the streets. Yet that is what our young people have faced at times.

That figure I have quoted is double what it was three years ago. One in five people who want to work cannot get a job. Well might we ask, what has happened to our youth workforce? I can give you some answers to that. What has happened to the opportunities for our young people? In the Hunter we have been hit hard by a downturn in mining and manufacturing and we have lost thousands of apprenticeships. Why have we lost apprenticeships? I can tell you exactly why—it was the horror budget of 2014. The Abbott-Turnbull government cut off vocational education and training and excellent partnership programs that were helping people into work—helping them create real linkages into real jobs, not just pretend jobs. We are seeing the fallout and the horror of the 2014 budget, as so many people predicted. I still remember, the day after that budget, going to work at a local organisation that helps young people. They were wringing their hands and saying, 'What happened last night? What a horror night and what a terrible time for our young people into the future.'

Those people saw the future. They knew that young people would miss out, and now we are feeling the fallout from that disastrous budget. As I said in my first speech, and as I truly believe, every young person deserves the right to get out of bed with a purpose and fulfil their potential. It is not just a romantic notion. We need people, especially our young, to be participating and working, to be continuing to grow our skills base and, believe it or not, to be contributing to the tax base. We need that. It is so important. But it requires excellence in education, skills-based training, real experience and the genuine opportunity to work.

The Youth Jobs PaTH program does not give young people a genuine opportunity to work; it gives them the genuine opportunity to be disappointed and, potentially, exploited. There are very real concerns that this path could be used to displace jobs with cheaper labour also, and there are very real concerns that participants may be working for below minimum wages. This program could very well see young Australians stacking supermarket shelves for less than the minimum wage. At a time when wages growth is at its lowest on record, there are very real concerns that the Youth Jobs PaTH program could be used to undermine wages across many industries. So it will be not just young would-be workers who suffer but all workers in lower-paying jobs.

And what protections would these interns, these young people who are so desperate to gain work, be afforded? Despite repeated questions, the government has not assured us that these interns will be covered by appropriate workers compensation schemes in the event of an accident. That is because the Youth Jobs PaTH scheme will treat these young people not as workers but, again, as volunteers.

Herein lies the problem: the Youth Jobs PaTH program does not specify real job areas in which job seekers will acquire skills. All we have been told is that these programs will give young people the skills that employers tell us those young people do not have. What are those skills, Minister Cash? Labor would like to know, young people would like to know and, I am sure, their hardworking and angsty parents would like to know. What is the definition of 'intern'? We are yet to understand who will be considered an intern and under what circumstances. Again, this is something that young people and their parents rightfully deserve to know. What will these interns be doing exactly during this intern phase? Will they be working or just observing? Will their experience be meaningful and their skill set used? Again, this is something that young people and their parents desperately want to know.

And just how many interns will be able to be employed by a particular company at any one time? Large numbers could be used at any given time, with little sanction applied to employers that might churn through all of these participants after they finish their engagement. One lot of interns finishes and another lot starts, without the need to ever employ anyone full-time or anyone with more experience who demands and deserves to be paid more money. Large numbers of interns could in fact completely remove the need for existing employees. There lies another problem.

We really just do not have enough detail, and that is why this bill should be referred to a Senate committee inquiry. Imagine the appeal of using large numbers of interns over the weekends, removing the need for regular employees at those times and removing the need to pay those penalty rates that the coalition would so happily do away with anyway. Labor is calling for this legislation and the entire Youth Jobs PaTH program to be referred to a Senate committee inquiry where it can be scrutinised and these concerns can be meaningfully addressed. To just pass this legislation without demanding a better deal for young Australians is not fair to those young people, their hardworking parents or, indeed, others in the workforce who might well be considered dispensable when a whole new intern market is developed.

This program is not an attempt to give young people a fair go at getting meaningful skills that lead to meaningful work. It is a desperate attempt by a desperate government to divert attention away from its poor record on generating jobs for young Australians and its poor record on preparing young Australians for work. The Work for the Dole program is evidence of that failure. Remember that, on the government's own figures, 90 per cent of Work for the Dole participants are not in full-time work three months after exiting the program. What is the point? When Work for the Dole was introduced, we were told that it would be the great panacea. The Youth Jobs PaTH appears to be just as destined to fail. It is poorly planned, full of holes and ripe for exploitation. More than that, it is potentially damaging to the prospects of young people and to other workers who may well become redundant with a new generation of interns.

The Senate needs to inquire into this legislation, because the government cannot seem to give us answers. How will this Youth Jobs PaTH program work? What is the definition of 'intern'? What work will interns be doing? What skills will interns be learning?

How can the government guarantee the Youth Jobs PaTH will not depress wages? How can the government guarantee the Youth Jobs PaTH will not displace jobs? How can the government guarantee the Youth Jobs PaTH will provide vital access to workers compensation? How can the government guarantee the Youth Jobs PaTH will not sidestep unfair dismissal laws?

This is a thought bubble backed up by a 'just trust us, everything will be fine' mentality. Well, Labor does not trust this government to look out for our young people, to look out for its young workers and for those who would work and could work, if only they had the skills, the training, the experience and, most importantly, the opportunity. We need to do everything possible to ensure our young people can get a good education, can get a good job and can keep that job. This government has an appalling record when it comes to helping young people.

Again, I think back to horror night in 2014. Apprentice numbers have been in freefall under the Abbott-Turnbull government. When Labor left office there were 415,000 apprentices in training; in March this year that figure was down to 286,500. We have had the whole Work for the Dole debacle; we have had that VET FEE HELP debacle and savage cuts to TAFE; and now we have this Youth Jobs PaTH debacle. As one organisation described it, this has been one of the heaviest betrayals of Australian workers since Work Choices. Far from being the path to secure work the Youth Jobs PaTH is a road to nowhere. We demand that this government give the young people of Australia the opportunity that they so rightfully deserve.