The Guardian 28 September, 2005

Government offensive
against apprentices

Building Industry employers are backing the Howard government’s drive to slash the wages and conditions of apprentices in a bid to keep apprentice wages unsustainably low, the Construction Division of the CFMEU charges. Assistant National Secretary, Dave Noonan, has confirmed that the construction union will proceed with an Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) case aimed at lifting first-year apprentice rates, currently as low as $6 an hour.

Apprentices — already extremely low paid — are also being bullied into signing award and pay cutting AWAs, the government’s non-union, individual employment contracts, with the highest rate of pay being $6.90 an hour for a 40-hour week. PM Howard stated in 1992 that he wanted to see a "dramatically lower minimum wage for young people" and he has pursued that goal for the nearly ten years he has been in office.

The union commitment came as Howard announced a shake-up of apprentice pay and training that will turn over remuneration to his hand-picked Fair Pay Commission which would set "levels that ensure they are competitive in the labour market".

"Competition" is John Howard’s code for slashing training rates and green-lighting second-rate programs that will leave youngsters without readily marketable skills.

Control of the wages and conditions of almost 400,000 apprentices and trainees will handed over to the Fair Pay Commission (originally called the Low Pay Commission, a more accurate title).

The legislation will strip away award conditions that the government considers "restrict" the range of apprenticeships. These conditions include award stipulations on the duration and content of training.

The Master Builders Asso­ciation (MBA) has cited the Prime Minister’s announcement as a reason for the CFMEU case to be put on ice.

"We won’t turn our backs on young people who are struggling to get the skills our economy needs on wages as low as $6 an hour", Mr Noonan said.

"At the moment, they could make more money at Maccas. Where’s the incentive in that for dealing with our skills crisis?"

The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union and the Electrical Trades Union have joined the CFMEU in opposing Howard’s plan.

ETU Secretary, Bernie Riordan, noted that handing over training rates to the "Low Pay Commission" can mean only one thing — lower rates for apprentices and trainees.

He said of the government’s plans to strip limits on the duration of apprenticeships from awards: "This will allow employers to embark on very narrow training, leaving young people with limited skills and the community short of the broad skill base necessary to support economic growth".

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