The PaTH retail partnership announced by Employment Minister Michaelia Cash and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Monday adds to the existing PaTH internship program  — already controversial — and aims to place 10,000 unpaid interns with such venerable employers as Coffee Club and Bakers Delight through job providers, thus creating “up to 10,000” jobs. But what kind of oversight is there? Can any random person with an ABN decide they need unpaid labour for four to 12 weeks and pick up $1000 from the government to “cover the costs” of hosting an intern?

The PaTH website states the host business must “have a reasonable prospect of employment for the intern following the internship” — meaning the business has a vacancy, will likely have vacancy after the internship or has a “regular pattern of recruitment”– and cannot displace or drop the hours of existing workers to accommodate the intern. The host business must also not be owned by a family member of the intern or have previously hosted the intern. There are no other requirements — for example, businesses don’t have to establish that the role requires weeks of unpaid training before it can be filled, rather than on-the-job training. 

Professor of management at Queensland University of Technology Paula McDonald told Crikey the lack of publicly available information about how the program was regulated raised concerns about the potential for exploitation.

“Given these interns are exempt from the protections of the Fair Work Act, it’s crucial that the participants, who, let’s face it, are likely to be some of the most vulnerable workers in Australia, have some assurances about the protections they will receive,” she said. 

Owen Bennett, president of Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union, told Crikey the program subjected businesses to “very minimal requirements”.

“There’s no clarity around the definition of a ‘current vacancy’,” he said. “Apart from a few vague conditions, pretty much any business can get an intern.”

The Department of Employment could not guarantee that the program would not be used to undercut existing employees’ penalty rates — the program can include weekend or shift work (excluding public holidays) — when The Guardian asked this morning.

Quizzed on the program when it was introduced back in May last year, Cash promised the scheme would be monitored and any employer found to be exploiting interns would be banned from using the program.

A spokesperson for the Department of Employment told Crikey the department and the interns’ employment service providers would “closely monitor PaTH internship placements to ensure host businesses are using the program appropriately” and if a business was found to be misusing the program the department would “make a determination, depending on the individual circumstances, on an appropriate course of action, which may include terminating internship placements, or preventing further access to the program”.

“Providers have an important role in determining that an internship is suitable for a young person,” the spokesperson said. “This will include looking at a business’s history on internships and success of placing interns into employment. The provider will ensure that the host business provides a safe system of work and adequate supervision for each intern.” 

Bennett says in light of recent numbers on how many people get jobs out of the program, this was an empty promise.

“They say they’re going to investigate employers who do it without offering people jobs at the end, but at the most generous interpretation that means they’ll have to investigate 85% of the businesses using it,” he said.

Associate professor at the law school at the University of Adelaide Anne Hewitt says research she and other academics had conducted — for the Department of Employment — on unpaid work showed it actually led directly to a paid position only about a quarter of the time.

“There lots of evidence about increasing enthusiasm for unpaid work, but it’s not all a good news story,” she said.  “If there’s a constantly cycle of free work being done, what does that do to entry level positions? I can’t see how more free labor is going to create more retail jobs.”