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Can You Be Kicked Off Welfare For Refusing The Government's $4 Per Hour Internships?

"The government has cut more people's payments than have found a job under this program."

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First things first, what is the PaTH program?

In its budget last year, the government introduced the controversial scheme where young people could voluntarily earn $200 a fortnight — which as BuzzFeed News identified could equate to as little as $4 per hour — on top of their current welfare payments, for the duration of a four-to-12 week internship.

Under the Youth Jobs PaTH scheme, which launched in April, businesses receive an upfront $1,000 payment from the government for taking on the intern, who works for a minimum of 30 hours and maximum of 50 hours per fortnight.

Why does the government think it is necessary?

Almost 30% of Australians who are long term unemployed are aged under 25 years and the government wants them to get jobs.

Our youth unemployment rate was at 12.9% as of July.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (left) and Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash
Mick Tsikas / AAPIMAGE

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (left) and Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash

And why are we talking about it now?

Last week BuzzFeed News revealed two young people on the PaTH program were chasing unpaid wages.

On Tuesday, the government said it would audit all employers on its program to ensure they were "complying with the relevant guidelines".

The revelation came shortly before the Senate passed a motion on Tuesday afternoon calling on the government to carry out an urgent audit of the PaTH scheme.

The motion noted a coffee chain in Melbourne allowed an intern to work hours "well beyond the maximum 50 hours per fortnight", rostered on another young job seeker "before the internship had even begun" and offered Visa gift cards as payment, as exposed by BuzzFeed News.

Assistant minister to the prime minister, senator James McGrath responded to the motion by telling the senate the Department of Employment was already "conducting an audit for participating employers".

McGrath reiterated interns could leave their internship at any time "without penalty".

"All internships are voluntary and must be agreed between the employer and intern," he said.

So the internships are voluntary and don't affect existing welfare payments, what's the big deal?

On Wednesday, The Australian published a story in which the employment minister Michaelia Cash claimed 1300 unemployed young people had their benefits suspended for not participating in employability skills training which she told the newspaper was a "crucial element of their mutual obligation requirements".

Benefits stayed on hold until the job-seeker agreed to attend a "re-engagement appointment" when payments would start again, the government said.

So if it is voluntary how can people be kicked off welfare for not doing it?

So the first part of the PaTH program - the P for prepare - is compulsory.

If you don't attend this employment skills training your welfare cheque will be docked by 10% of the fortnightly amount for each day you don't comply until your entire welfare payment is suspended.

If you're really interested, you can check out more of the requirements here.

When asked how many of the 1300 people would get their welfare payments reinstated, a Department of Employment spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: "This will depend on how many of them re-engage in the appropriate manner."

So how is the scheme working out?

That depends on who you ask!

Since April 1 when it launched, 9427 people had started job-skills training, 1631 have started internships and 413 people had got jobs, the government has said.

Labor's shadow minister for employment services, Ed Husic, told the House of Representatives on Wednesday that the government had found jobs for just 413 young people but suspended payments for 1300 others through the PaTH program.

APH

"The government has cut more people's payments than have found a job under this program," Husic said.

"People are being punished instead of helped."

He said the two cases revealed by BuzzFeed News showed the governments did not have "the right protections in place" to protect young people from exploitation.

"It shouldn't take an embarrassing news story to kick this government into gear."

Greens senator Rachel Siewert said suspending hundreds of payments was a "cruel and paternalistic approach to the social safety net".

“PaTH was pitched as this amazing voluntary measure that would help young people get jobs and instead 1300 young people have had their payments suspended, which could result in homelessness and hunger," Siewert said.

Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney said the program was a "disgrace".

"1300 vulnerable young people have had the money they need to survive torn away for failing to attend a program the minister told Australia was voluntary," Kearney told BuzzFeed News.

“We’re five months into this program and the only thing it has done successfully is to hand young people and tax payer’s money to companies to do with as they see fit."

Gina Rushton is a breaking news reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Gina Rushton at gina.rushton@buzzfeed.com.

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