Apprentice wages spark union campaign

by Bianca Hall
April 18, 2012

At 41, newlywed Stuart Butterworth doesn’t look like a typical apprentice. But, starting out on a yearly wage of $17,000, he had the typical apprentice experience.

”It’s been a struggle, especially with the low income, and I’ve seen a lot of guys fall by the wayside mainly because they could get paid better, even holding a lollipop, you know, at traffic.”

Mr Butterworth moved from Queensland to Canberra in 2009, promptly taking up an apprenticeship with ACT Property Group. But while the final-year sparky loves his job, he wonders whether newcomers to the industry would think it worth while.

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First-year apprentice electricians earn just $7.22 an hour over a 38-40 hour week, according to the award, equivalent to 40 per cent of a qualified electrician’s wage. That represents just $31 a week more than the dole.

Mr Butterworth survived the lean years of his apprenticeship by living in share houses and social housing, counting every dollar and going without luxuries.

Now in his final apprenticeship year and earning $33,000, Mr Butterworth and his new wife are living with his in-laws until he gets his licence later this year and they get on their feet.

”I want to have kids one day, and I don’t want them in 16 or 17 years trying to live on $250 a week,” he said.

”It’s pretty hard. You don’t get to go out, you don’t get to have a night on the town as regularly as you would like. It’s really hard.”

The Electrical Trades Union, part of the Community, Electrical and Plumbing Union, is stepping up its campaign for a 20 per cent wage rise for its lowest-paid workers.

Assistant secretary Allen Hawke, who with Mr Butterworth met with Skills minister Chris Evans in Parliament House yesterday, said conditions for apprentices were an ”absolute disgrace”.

”Most of them 10 years ago were 15 years of age, still living at home, completed grade 10 and had no other attributes to bring to the job,” he said yesterday.

”Now the overwhelming majority of apprentices have to have completed year 12, have to have a driver’s licence, and have to have completed a pre-apprenticeship course before an employer will even look at them.

”And we’re saying that’s worth at least another 20 per cent.”

The union wants first-year apprentices to get 60 per cent of a qualified electrician’s wage,which would be an extra $134 before tax.

As well as lobbying politicians – the union will also meet with cross-bencher Rob Oakeshott and new Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt – the CEPU has joined a massive wage claim lodged at Fair Work Australia last month.

The ACTU lodged its claim at the authority, which is expected to be heard in June or July, pushing for wages to be raised to the minimum level in each industry.

Mr Evans gave early hope to the campaign when he told the National Press Club days later that the existing apprenticeship scheme was ”a mess” and that lifting the wages of apprenticeships should be a key part of fixing that mess.

”This is an area in desperate need of reform and the wages case is one part of it,” Senator Evans said.

He has not since given any public assurances about how this might happen.

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