The federal government’s expansion of the Boosting Apprenticeships Commencement scheme could be a recipe for exploiting young workers in Victoria, a union says.
The $2.7 billion investment will provide wage subsidies worth 50 per cent of salaries for new apprentices, in the government’s attempt to curb youth unemployment due to the pandemic.
Young Workers Centre acting director Mairead Lesman said the union had seen a 300 per cent increase in clients in the past 18 months but was expecting this number would continue to increase even further.
“We already have these cowboy operators that are in there, kind of doing whatever they want, making a quick buck off the cheap labour of these young apprentices,” she said.
“We’re now going to see this behaviour becoming far more normalised across the board.”
Ms Lesman said apprentices as young as 15 years old faced a slew of “terrible workplace practices”.
“Ultimately, what they’re facing most of the time, is a huge power imbalance between them and their boss,” she said.
“Often they know that something’s wrong—they realise that they aren’t being paid correctly, that they shouldn’t be treated this way—but it’s incredibly hard to stand up without a collective backing you.”
Lilydale electrician and former apprentice Josh Pettinella suffered from psychological abuse at the hands of three different employers throughout his apprenticeship.
“I would wake up in the morning and just not want to go into work because I knew the kind of abuse I was going to cop,” he said.
They put so much pressure on us and just had completely unrealistic expectations.
Mr Pettinella said he was often forced to work in unsafe conditions and asked to perform tasks for which he did not have the appropriate license.
“The bosses had a ‘if you don’t like it, you can leave’ kind of mentality,” he said.
“In that position, you know if you speak up, you’ll just get fired … and finding another job is pretty difficult as an apprentice.”
Completion rates for apprentices who commenced in 2015 were just 43.8 per cent for trade occupations and 54.9 per cent for non-trade occupations, a report by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research found.
The Apprentice and Trainee Experience and Destinations Report, released in July last year, found that “employment reasons” was the most commonly cited explanation for not completing an apprenticeship.
Young Workers Centre has campaigned in recent weeks for the state government to implement a licensing system to regulate employers and prevent the mistreatment of apprentices.
Ms Lesman said a regulatory body could perform spot checks and penalise any “repeat offenders,” however, given that there were more than 5000 employers with currently hired apprentices in Victoria, it was easier said than done.
“Whatever solution—if it’s a licensing system or a regulatory body—we need to make sure that it has the teeth to deal with the issues we’re seeing, but also enough resources to do the work that is necessary,” she said.