The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has applied to Fair Work Australia to increase the minimum rate of pay for apprentices. However the demands are like a band aid on a gaping wound. The ACTU want the minimum rate of pay of all first year apprentices increased to just $423.66 per week – well below the minimum wage.
Apprentices across the board are paid a pittance. A first year apprentice hairdresser for example can make as little as $6.97 an hour. This is barely enough to cover food and transport let alone rent.
While employers in Australia complain about a skills shortage, none of them want to pay to address it. Apprenticeships are becoming harder to find and even if you are lucky enough to get one the chances are you will struggle to make ends meet. Around half of all people who start an apprenticeship drop out because they cannot survive on the meagre wages offered.
In many cases apprentices are used by employers to cut costs. For example at Bakers Delight some apprentices are paid as little as $8 an hour while being asked to do the job of a qualified baker. In many cases each apprentice can produce nearly 100 loaves in an hour, selling for in excess of $350. With these types of margins there is no reason why employers could not pay apprentices at least the minimum wage.
Not only do apprentices need a real living wage but the unions need to campaign for more apprenticeships in order to ensure that young people in Australia are afforded a decent future with skilled jobs.
Not so long ago state owned companies in industries like transport, aviation, electricity, telecommunications and water used to employ hundreds of apprentices every year. When these enterprises were privatised they wound down their training programs as a way of increasing their profits in the short term. Now these same firms are complaining about a skills shortage.
These firms should be brought back into public ownership so that we can restart the process of running them as public services and not private-profit making enterprises. At the same time we could use them to train up thousands of young people while guaranteeing them a well paid job at the end.
Side by side with this the unions should be fighting for a widespread program of public works to create jobs in construction including apprenticeships. That way we can provide employment and develop skills while building the infrastructure that society needs like schools, hospitals, childcare centres and renewable energy.
These types of solutions to the skills shortage and low pay will not be won via test cases at Fair Work Australia. The capitalist courts are set up to defend the interests of the rich and powerful. In the main the decisions they make only reflect what has already been won on the ground.
That is why the only way to really win living wages and more apprenticeships is to take the fight up directly with employers and governments. As well as fighting to reverse privatisation and for more public infrastructure, unions need to fight for apprentice ratios in all workplace agreements.
Employers and governments will resist these moves but they can be beaten back by industrial action. A mass campaign aimed at providing a decent future for young people would receive widespread community support. This is the type of approach the ACTU should be taking.
By SP reporters