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With young jobseekers being encouraged to sign up to the PaTH internship program, companies are benefiting from free labour and a government subsidy. The question is, what are the interns gaining? By Catherine Bouris.

PaTH and unpaid internships

Let’s call her Alice. She is still looking for a job and has asked not to use her real name.

Alice is 23. She has a bachelor’s degree as well as a diploma. Despite these qualifications, she has spent months looking for work. Because she receives a Newstart Allowance, she was signed up to the government’s PaTH program this year – an internship scheme in which businesses are paid to take on free labour, its name drawn from the phrase Prepare, Trial and Hire.

Centrelink referred her to a job agency, which referred her for interviews with several businesses that had signed up to participate in the government’s controversial program. These included a three-month administrative assistant internship, a month-long housekeeping internship and a six-week food preparation internship at a frozen food factory.

In addition to attending these interviews, Alice has to undertake myriad other tasks: apply for at least 20 jobs a month, meet her caseworker to prove she has been looking for work, and attend courses conducted by the agency. One such course ran for three days, and consisted of mock job interviews and a trainer who complained about young people stealing all the jobs. While in the office with her caseworker, she is expected to spend time searching for jobs – not applying for them, just looking them up. Despite the promise of a dedicated caseworker, she has met a different caseworker each time she has visited the job agency.

Alice describes one of the worst experiences she had with a caseworker: “I had to miss an appointment once because my dog had cancer and I had to take her to the vet, and the woman I spoke to was awful about it. The way she spoke to me about missing an appointment, it was like I was a criminal. I’ve never had anyone speak to me that way before.”

 

As an undergraduate looking for paid work, I sent out more than 20 job applications a week, largely for retail and hospitality positions. Throughout the course of my three-and-a-half-year degree, I heard back from fewer than 10. It wasn’t until I switched tactics and began applying for unpaid internships that I started getting responses to my resumés and cover letters. This was the first time I had the thought: what if my labour isn’t worth paying for?

Since July 2015 – the final semester of my degree – I have undertaken more than 700 hours of unpaid work for nine organisations, seven of which were media organisations. Two asked me to come in for a one-day trial, only to tell me I wasn’t a good fit after I spent the day transcribing and doing administrative tasks. One agreed to a three-month internship, only to tell me there wasn’t enough work for me after I asked to cut back from two days a week to one, in order to better manage my other internship and full-time university course load.

Almost all of these internships featured a lot of administrative work – uploading content to websites, updating spreadsheets, sorting products, filing press releases. Under the Fair Work Act, unpaid internships are only lawful if they: benefit the intern more than the company, are undertaken as part of an educational course, and do not require the intern to perform tasks that would otherwise be performed by a paid employee. Interns Australia also warns interns to be “wary of specific tasks and deadlines” – these suggest the internship is more than observational.

These guidelines do not apply to internships undertaken through the government’s PaTH program. Young jobseekers are placed in internships as housekeepers, administrative assistants and baristas. The government argues that this is about “getting our youth off welfare and into work” and that “the best form of welfare is a job”.

PaTH is described by the government as a “voluntary internship” program. After undertaking six weeks of intensive employability skills training, unemployed people under the age of 25 can contact a job agency to be placed in an internship. They will then be paid $200 a fortnight on top of their regular Centrelink payments. Businesses that take on PaTH interns will receive $1000 initially, and up to $10,000 over six months if they then offer the interns a paid position at the end of the four- to 12-week internship period.

The president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Ged Kearney, condemned PaTH, saying: “This is a program which runs contrary to everything we know works best to address youth unemployment and skills shortages.” Lucas Walsh, associate professor of education at Monash University, expressed concerns about the “message this sends to young people about the value of their labour”, and added that measures such as the PaTH program “are only effective if quality, meaningful work is available at the end of the internship”.

The government recently announced a deal with the Australian Hotels Association in which the hospitality sector will provide 10,000 positions for PaTH interns in exchange for $10 million. This deal will provide the hospitality sector with cheap labour that it could not get by hiring jobseekers themselves, and will make it increasingly difficult for jobseekers not enrolled in the program to find work. Why pay someone $20 an hour when you can get paid to have them work for free?

 

At the time of writing, Pedestrian.TV’s jobs section lists 12 pages of unpaid internships – more than 130 positions.

Pedestrian’s audience skews slightly younger than that of other job search sites, such as Seek and Indeed, and it has become a key site for organisations to list unpaid positions.

Some of the listings are flagrant violations of the Fair Work Act. Some are so outrageous I have posted them on social media and emailed the company advertising. While the posts have reached thousands, I am yet to receive a response from any of the companies.

Take this listing for a “warehouse assistant internship” at a clothing label, which lists the tasks the intern will perform: organising stock, stocktake, consigning samples, steaming clothes, data entry, admin, packing orders and general warehouse duties. How many of those tasks benefit the intern more than the label?

Another, at magazine publisher Bauer Media, asks an intern to come in from Monday to Friday, 10am to 3pm, for two weeks, to complete “general admin duties”. Don’t worry, the listing says, it is “a great stepping stone that could lead to more internships with other Bauer magazine titles”.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has an anonymous reporting tool for abuses of unpaid labour. But since April last year, the ombudsman has received only 17 anonymous reports complaining about “unpaid or token pay” internships in the print, media and telecommunications industry. Of those 17, six were notifying the ombudsman’s office about advertisements for interns via third parties such as Pedestrian, Seek and Indeed.

Despite senate inquiries, it is not clear that the government is altogether concerned about the rising number of unpaid positions being advertised across Australia. If anything, the rollout of the PaTH program contributes to an attitude of undervaluing the work of young people, and expecting young people, students and jobseekers to perform what is usually paid work for free.

When it was first announced, PaTH was ridiculed for describing things such as working as a barista or cashier as “internships”, but the program has now been implemented, and young jobseekers are being encouraged to work in retail and hospitality roles for free, all in an effort to combat rising youth unemployment rates.

Soon, nobody under the age of 25 will technically be unemployed; instead, we’ll all be jumping from internship to internship, making lattes and filling out spreadsheets.

Alice recently found a job interview by herself, and let her caseworker know she would not be able to attend an internship interview because they clashed. The caseworker reprimanded her for going outside the PaTH system, saying, “How do you know if this job is permanent?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 12, 2017 as "Interning damnation". Subscribe here.

Catherine Bouris
is a freelance writer, post-grad​uate​ media student and creator of the Young Australian Writers Facebook group.

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