OPINION: The Coalition’s controversial internship scheme for young, unemployed Australians has been tested before. While the intentions behind a similar Irish program were noble enough, it proved a catastrophe, writes Barry Dunning.
The Government’s PaTH internship scheme will be a disaster. Just ask Ireland.
The centrepiece of the Federal Government’s plan to tackle youth unemployment is a close cousin to Ireland’s calamitous JobsBridge scheme, which was dogged by controversy, claims of exploitation and few full-time jobs at the end of it.
Now that the starter’s gun has been fired on the longest election campaign in 50 years, the recent budget is likely to be lost in a haze of three-word slogans and hard-hat photo opportunities. This is a crying shame, because the Government’s “plan” to help young jobseekers should be the subject of close scrutiny.
The scheme, known as PaTH (Prepare, Trial, Hire), was announced with great acclaim by Scott Morrison, with the assertion that it would “help young job seekers… gain valuable work experience within a real business.”
So far so good. Everyone wanted Tony Abbott’s disgraceful Work for the Dole scheme axed. Everyone agrees we need to do something about youth unemployment, which at 12 per cent is more than double the wider unemployment rate of 5.7 per cent.
But from what we know so far, PaTH will be a disaster. Firstly, the wages, working out at just $4 per hour on top of existing Newstart payments, are slave-labour low. Secondly, these workers will not be eligible for penalty rates or overtime. Thirdly, young jobseekers will not be covered by workers’ compensation, meaning that if they are injured on the job then that’s just tough luck. Fourthly, the scheme may in fact be illegal. Lastly, the scheme is likely to be exploited wholesale, as unscrupulous employers use the internship programme as a form of cheap labour and to avoid hiring full-time staff.
Think that’s just scaremongering? That’s what happened in Ireland.
When Ireland’s economy hit the wall in 2008 during the Great Financial Crisis, it did so spectacularly. Unemployment ballooned from 4.6 per cent in 2006 to 15 per cent in 2012. During the period 2009-2014, 120,000 people (including this author) emigrated from Ireland. Banking debt and property speculation forced the Irish Government into a humiliating bailout in 2011. As politicians struggled to create jobs and shore up the sinking economy the idea of JobsBridge was born. According to the Irish Government’s own website:
“The aim of the National Internship Scheme (JobsBridge) is to assist in breaking the cycle where jobseekers are unable to get a job without experience, either as new entrants to the labour market after education or training or as unemployed workers wishing to learn new skills. The scheme will also give young people a real opportunity to gain valuable experience to bridge the gap between study and the beginning of their working lives.”
Very similar to what Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison are proposing for Australia. So how did it all work out?
While the intentions of the Irish Government were almost certainly noble, the scheme was a disaster. Right from the get-go, JobsBridge was dogged by controversy, as clever businesses realised it could be easily exploited to replace full-time workers with people on as little as one euro ($1.54) per hour. Major retailers like Tesco, Banks, big pharmacy chains, betting shops, cinema chains and many more swept in, offering internships where previously they would have offered jobs.
Soon after this small businesses got into the game. Internships were quickly being offered as kitchen assistants, dairy-herd assistants, school cleaners, bar staff, café workers and in late-night chip-shops. A fox-hunting group even tried to get in on the rort, offering an internship as a “whipper-in” (hunt assistant) before a storm of controversy saw the positions hastily removed.
Almost 100 jobs in the education sector were advertised, replacing primary school teachers and Special Needs Assistants. The Irish Government itself used the scheme, with 330 employed on JobsBridge internships. Not one of these interns secured a full time job at the end.
My personal favourite though, were the JobsBridge interns providing training courses for other jobseekers! You couldn’t make that up.
JobsBridge has faced relentless criticism from its inception, as a lurk for businesses to avoid having to pay full time wages. But despite the all the grumblings from the usual suspects (the unions, the young, the unemployed) did it work?
According to research from the National Youth Council of Ireland only 27 per cent of those who took up internships went on to secure full time employment. And 44 per cent of those surveyed believed their employer offered the internship “solely for free labour”.
Australia already has a serious issue with the exploitation of foreign workers. From the scandal at 7-Eleven to regional fruit picking, “black jobs” are leading to rampant exploitation of foreign workers in Australia. The Government has been mute on tackling this systemic exploitation by franchisors, labour-hire firms and farmers. PaTH is likely to exacerbate this problem of worker exploitation.
A cynic would say that the Federal Government knows that it cannot get away with abolishing Penalty Rates or cutting the minimum wage as the business lobby continually demands. So it is inviting businesses to do this themselves, by replacing full time jobs with $4 per hour internships.
There is a real crisis in youth unemployment. For Australians already in the workplace, the rise of on-demand work is tough enough. For young Australians, there has never been a less exciting time to be a jobseeker in Australia. Burdened by college debt and facing a jobs market where it is hard to get ahead unless you are well-connected, the future for many can look as bleak as Tasmania in the depths of winter.
Instead of a scheme like PaTH we need real support for good jobs. A Government that praises employers that pay Penalty Rates, not one that calls for their abolition in sotto-voce. A Government that invests in the industries and jobs of the future, instead of continuing to dump taxpayers’ money into fossil fuel infrastructure investment. A Government that supports all Australians getting the best education possible, instead pushing degrees beyond the reach of working and middle-class Australians and gutting TAFE to benefit private operators.
As the distinguished American Supreme Court Judge Louis D. Brandeis said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”. So let’s hope between now and July 2 there is plenty of sunlight shone on PaTH by the media, politicians and the wider community. Young Australians need real supports to secure good jobs, not a knock-off scheme that’s certain to do more harm than good.
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