Apprentice wage fight pushes on

MOVES to increase apprentices’ minimum wages have been welcomed by a local senior union member, who called for a full inquiry into the reportedly “decades-old” award system.

Gippsland Trades and Labour Council secretary John Parker said the award needed to be revamped urgently and based on the pay rate for a single-income household with three dependents and what it would cost them to live.

“For instance, a second-year apprentice is earning about $12 an hour; they can’t survive (on this wage),” Mr Parker said.

“If they are then stood down without pay, like what happened here last year, they also haven’t learnt enough in the job, so they go looking around with mates for jobs like driving trucks or packing or something like that which pays more, but are not long-term jobs.”

Adding the low wages were a contributing factor to an apprentice dropout rate of 49 per cent in Gippsland, Mr Parker accused government departments of “continually sidestepping the issue (of wages)”.

At the Fair Work Commission in Sydney on Monday, the Australia Council of Trade Unions began a case to increase minimum wages for apprentices.

Fourth year apprentice electrician Glen Stanlake said many apprentices struggled in their first two years to pay for living and transportation expenses.

“You have to make sacrifices, and get lifts to work or (continue to) live at home,” Mr Stanlake said.

“It’s hard; you see your peers in other industries getting a headstart (financially)… a wage increase would help people.”

Meanwhile, the director of a local business said increased wages for apprentices would be unsustainable given slow economic conditions.

“We pay above the award for a first-year apprentice; we can’t afford to pay more because we can’t charge customers a higher rate,” Laser Electrical director Matt McDermott said.

Mr McDermott said the Traralgon-based business, which works primarily in the commercial and residential sector, had been “struggling” in recent times.

“I’ve done my time (as an apprentice) on way less money than what apprentices are getting now,” he said.

“If the economy was better (maybe businesses could afford to pay more), but the economy is not real flash at the moment.”

Meanwhile, Mr Parker said businesses were “racing to the bottom” because of a deregulated wages market.

“I keep warning people there is about five or six years to go, and there won’t be any supervisors to do jobs because the baby boomers are ready to take off and the industry hasn’t replaced the next generation,” he said.

“If businesses want to survive, they have to pay more and look at proper (apprentice to qualified tradespeople) ratios and get more skilled people, because a lot of tradies are being lost to the mining industry.”