Apprentices fight unpaid downtime



MELBOURNE — On February 4, 150 apprentices who are members of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) in Victoria went on strike for 24 hours as part of their campaign to put an end to unpaid downtime in the construction, maintenance and service industries.

ETU apprentice members held a stopwork meeting that same day outside the offices of VICTEC, a group training company which is the state's largest employer of apprentices.

Hundreds of electrical apprentices are employed by group training companies (GTCs). These were set up in response to a massive industry downturn in the 1980s and 1990s during which a declining number of companies were willing to commit to four years employment for apprentices.

GTCs act like labour hire firms, providing training for apprentices and hiring them out to electrical contractors at an hourly rate. Current agreements between the ETU and GTCs allow for apprentices be placed on unpaid "downtime" when work is not available. Some apprentices have had up to six months of downtime.

To add insult to injury, those apprentices who have accumulated downtime will have to make up for this lost training time at the end of their four-year apprenticeships.

The protest at VICTEC was bolstered by the attendance of ETU officials and organisers as well as ETU delegations from work sites around the city.

Victorian ETU state secretary Dean Mighell reported to the protesters that although several GTCs had already agreed to end unpaid downtime, VICTEC wants an "out" clause whereby it will have the right to unilaterally withdraw unpaid downtime if it believes this is damaging its business.

ETU officials, negotiating on the terms agreed to by apprentices at previous meetings, are holding out for an agreement which gives the ETU a veto power over unpaid downtime.

ETU apprentices organiser Shaun Leane reported on the state of the campaign, explaining that ETU members on several large construction sites, including Grocon's QV project, Fountain Gate shopping centre and Victoria Gardens apartments had taken action over unpaid downtime in the week preceding the apprentices' strike. Workers on these sites held lunchtime meetings on the issue and then voted to strike for the rest of the day in a series of rolling stoppages designed to put pressure on the National Electrical Contractors Association, the bosses' "union".

[Jackie Lynch is an electrical apprentice and member of the ETU.]

From Green Left Weekly, February 12, 2003.

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