Business has baulked at the latest push from trade unions to increase wages for apprentices, suggesting already burdened industries such as construction would be averse to employing more workers if labour costs were forced to rise.
The move also comes as the Australian Council of Trade Unions is pushing for a 4% increase in the minimum wage, a decision set to be handed down in July by Fair Work.
ACCI director of employment, education and training Jenny Lambert told SmartCompany this morning the organisation is “very concerned” about the wage push.
“This wasn’t unexpected because they’ve been talking about it for some time, but we are still very concerned the emphasis seems to be on comparing the wages earned by apprentices to the overall economy.”
“Particularly when we’re talking about a very short phase in someone’s life when they are gaining training.”
Lambert says an apprenticeship needs to be kept in context as a time of learning and training that’s not comparable to a job in the workforce. She also argues these apprentices are likely to receive much higher wages over their career.
“Research continues to show those who receive a trade qualification are bound to receive very good career earnings and often become small business people themselves.”
The debate comes as the construction industry suffers some of the highest insolvency rates in the country.
The ACTU said it will launch a test case by applying to Fair Work to establish a new safety net for apprentices. ACTU president Ged Kearney said apprentices weren’t able to earn a basic wage and cited research showing half of all apprentices drop out before completing training.
Kearney also referenced research showing a quarter of apprentices are now aged over 25, and said the ACTU will be pushing for apprentices to be paid the minimum wage in their industry.
“Today, many apprentices are beginning their training at a later age and have family responsibilities, or at least no longer live with their parents and must support themselves,” Kearney said in a statement.
“Yet the apprentice pay structure does not account for this, with some of these workers still paid as low as $6.32 an hour, which is less than the Newstart allowance.”
The ACTU is also pushing for a 4% rise in the minimum wage review, to be handed down in July. This would equate to an increase of between $23-35 every week.
But the ACCI rejects the notion. Lambert said the ACTU cannot put pressure on small businesses to increase wages for older apprentices, saying older apprentices are making a career move like any other.
“We welcome the fact there will be people who are interested in doing apprentices at all ages, but it’s interesting the ACTU is putting pressure on because of that.”
However, Lambert said the career-long income makes up for it.
“We welcome apprentices of all ages. But we need to be mindful that we have to continue encouraging employers to create these opportunities in the first place.”