Unions to seek $70 million in backpay for apprentices

The Australian, November 28, 2017

Unions will seek up to $70 million in backpay for apprentices and trainees in Queensland after the Federal Court cleared the way for claims by thousands of workers wrongly paid less than $9 an hour.

But employers said firms could be “sent to the wall” unless federal and state governments intervened to ensure the millions of dollars owed to young workers were paid back in stages.

The Fair Work Commission had twice ruled that apprentices in Queensland should have been paid under federal awards rather than low-paying state awards.

But the Housing Industry Association, Master Builders Queensland and group training outfit All Trades Queensland appealed against a commission full bench ruling to the Federal Court. The court yesterday rejected the appeal, prompting the Electrical Trades Union to declare it would seek backpay for more than 4000 apprentices.

ETU Queensland apprentice officer Scott Reichman said thousands of underpaid apprentices were collectively owed more than $70m.

Unions estimate apprentices employed across Queensland group training organisations could have been wrongly paid under state awards since January 2014. Under the federal award, apprentices are entitled to $12.66 an hour, compared with $8.75 an hour under the state award.

ETU national apprentice officer Mark Burgess said attempts by employer organisations to deny Queensland apprentices a living wage were reprehensible. “Any reasonable member of the community would say that it’s not OK to pay anyone $8 an hour. It’s despicable, shameless behaviour aimed at lining employer pockets at the expense of even the most basic living standards for Queensland apprentices and their families.”

Apprentice electrician Reuben Weston, 23, said he was underpaid for two years. Despite working 40 hours a week, his low wage meant “I couldn’t go out for a beer with my mates”, and he earned less than friends who worked in fast-food outlets.

Master Builders CEO Grant Galvin said that before last year’s Fair Work ruling, the commission had approved dozens of enterprise agreements that relied on the Queensland award, and the Fair Work Ombudsman had advised employers to pay under the state award. He said governments needed to help employers transition to new rates.