Plumbers' union campaigns for increased apprentice wages

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Plumbers' union campaigns for increased apprentice wages

By Vannessa Hearman

A year ago the Plumbing Division of the Communication, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) lodged a wage claim with the Industrial Relations Commission to increase rates of pay for adult apprentices, particularly in the early years of training. In an interview with Melbourne community radio 3CR's Susan Price, Dennis Matson, a national industrial officer, talked about the campaign and its motivation.

"It has been very slow progress. We have been waiting for the outcome of a case on adult apprentice wages in the vehicle industry award, which was referred to a full bench", Matson explained.

"We thought we had an agreement with the employers at the end of 1998 on implementing something that would at least get adult apprentices this year on a reasonable wage. But that agreement fell apart and we had to get the dispute arbitrated, which will happen in the next few weeks."

The apprentice wage system, according to Matson, is a product of an antiquated system of social values. "Wages in the award now were set in the days when apprentices started at the age of 15 years to finish at the age of 21. The wages were set with the idea in mind that they would be living at home."

According to the union's research, the de average starting age of apprentices is now 19 years. Fifteen per cent of those entering apprenticeships were over 21, and there were "significant numbers" 30-40 years old.

Young people are being forced to rely on their parents longer. Industrial relations minister Peter Reith's plans to maintain junior rates of pay through the Youth Employment Bill and cutbacks in youth allowances mean that young people have less economic independence.

Junior rates of pay and apprentice wages are set at extremely low levels. For example, the rate for first year apprentices would be about the dole level, about $205 gross per week base rate. Matson said, "Take-home pay works out to be around $4.70 per hour".

Given the push to increase on the job training and new employees being taken on under training wages, Matson conceded that the union's application would be very difficult to get up in full.

Phil Honeywood, Victorian minister for higher education, released statements accusing the union of decreasing the number of apprenticeships and putting people out of jobs through its claim. Matson responded, "Clearly it would be against our own interests to do that, but we want to make sure that people who have families and financial commitments get paid more than $4.70 per hour".

The claim, if successful, can help stop the slide of wages and conditions for workers in general. The union attempts to gain support from non-apprentice members by "keeping them informed". It has also had discussions with the vehicle builders' division of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union.

At present, the campaign is limited to increasing the rates of pay of adult apprentices: apprentices under 18 years of age will still be subject to poor rates of pay even if the campaign succeeds.