There’s a lot in the media this week about ex-Senator Bob Day. You may think this whole sorry saga is about Day’s dodgy dealings over the sale and rent of his electoral office and Day’s business failure. But pass the popcorn folks, because you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Before I start at the beginning, just a bit of context about profit-loving-free-marketeer-Turnbull’s apparently contradictory dislike for private training colleges. That’s right, Turnbull, who loves everything about profit in any situation, apparently makes an exception when that profit is being made by private vocational colleges. He recently said, when announcing a policy to limit what these profit-makers could charge students, that he needed to crack down to ‘weed out the rorters’. Hold that thought.
The beginning. The beginning was when Bob Day stood for the Liberals in 2007 and turned the marginal seat of Makin into the safest Labor seat in the country with a swing against the Liberals of 8.63%. Actually, that wasn’t the beginning, but it’s a fun fact anyway.
The beginning of this web is actually ex-Liberal, now-Family First Day’s maiden speech to parliament in 2014 when he laid out his political raison d’être by describing the minimum wage as an ‘absurd’ barrier to employment. Note the framing here. Day tries to make the worker the victim. He is trying to make an apprentice wage sound like an abundant amount of money. Which is a problem, wait for it, for the worker. That’s right. Day thinks workers should lower their asking price if they want some benevolent saint-like employer to take a chance on them and if they expect to be paid properly for their labour, well, they’ll never get a job. Absurd he calls it. Put more simply, Day, who I’m-sure-coincidentally-and-not-at-all-dubiously owned a multi-million-dollar construction company didn’t like having to pay young apprentices the minimum training wage, and could see a golden opportunity to smash this absurd protection-against-slave-like-wages by having a say in legislation passing the Senate. Using campaign funds from a huge donation to Family First from his building company, don’t forget.
By the way, let’s look at the rate Day is talking about when he mentions apprentice rates for young tradies. For a first-year carpentry apprenticeship in 2014, under the age of 21, the minimum wage is $12.42 an hour or $471.93 a week. Day thinks $45 a week above the poverty line for a full time job is an absurd amount of money.
This week, we’ve discovered how far along in Day’s plan he is to bring about his utopian paradise where he has slave-labour building houses for his construction company. Alas, unhappily for his investors, customers, workers and contractors, but happily for everyone else, this utopia will never happen for Day personally because, low and behold, the houses he was selling weren’t built very well (maybe the trades people weren’t very well trained #justsaying), were riddled with defects, didn’t meet schedules and sent the company Day owned broke, bringing down the Day house-of-cards with it. Day’s political slogan of ‘every family, a job and a house’ now reads more accurately as ‘every homeless family, a no-pay-job and a mortgage-on-an-unliveable-house’.
But wait, there’s more. Out of the shadows this week has been news that the Turnbull government have awarded a private trades training provider – North Eastern Vocational College (NEVC) – a $1.8 million grant, without tender, to run a pilot program delivering an ‘alternative model of apprenticeship delivery’. This college is linked to Day.
Before I describe how this alternate model appears to work, it’s important to know how NEVC currently fits into the apprentice system. I spoke this morning to a carpentry graduate of the college, who now has an apprentice who is currently a student there. NEVC is one of many private trades colleges which compete with the TAFE system to offer training to apprentices. These apprentices are working in apprentice carpentry jobs, employed by a qualified carpenter. NEVC training includes a small amount of class-room delivery, and then sign-off on certification throughout the apprenticeship, in order to ensure standards are met and ultimately an accreditation of a trade qualification. The cost for this training is, apparently, usually incurred by the apprentice’s employer at a fee of around $3,000 for four years. Through providing this payment, the employer (the qualified trades person), maintains the right to pay their apprentice the minimum-apprentice wage, which is below minimum wage. In other words, the $3,000 easily covers the $4 per hour reduction in the minimum wage, which amounts to a saving of $31,000 in wages over the four year apprenticeship. So, yes a trades person has to be busy enough to provide full-time work for their apprentice, yes they have to train that apprentice, but they also gain an assistant who they charge out to the client (possibly with a margin), who works hard, helps them complete their building projects and earns less than the minimum wage for their efforts. This model has produced thousands of competent tradespeople for the Australian economy. So, all in all, why is a reform, and an ‘alternative’ needed?
The answer to that question is reflected in Day’s maiden speech and in the report from the Liberal government’s consult-for-8-weeks advisory group who suggested the need for an alternative model. Note the advisory group was made up of private-training college providers. Funny that. Note there was no one from TAFE on the panel, nor a union representative. Funny that. In their report, one of their justifications for the need for a new model is ‘Industrial relations award conditions can adversely affect some pathways into apprenticeships’. Putting that in laymen terms, they are echoing Day’s mantra that the minimum apprenticeship wage is putting off employers from taking up apprentices. Can you see the web now?
Back to the grant given to NEVC, a training organisation Day had been chairman and director of for over 10 years, and the facility Day showed Simon Birmingham around in September 2015, a day Birmingham apparently does not recall. Resulting from Day’s lobbying efforts, NEVC has been awarded an eye-watering $90,000 per student, with two other training organisations also receiving million dollar grants to run the ‘alternative delivery pilot’. According to investigative work by Fairfax’s Heath Aston and Eryk Bagshaw, the alternative model will give the training colleges a ‘triple-dip’ of funding through not just the grant, but also by making student apprentices pay for their training through tertiary-education style HELP loans AND by charging employers to use the apprentices from the college. Let that settle for a moment. Suddenly the student is paying for the training, and the employer, and in turn, their client, is paying for the student to work on their project. So who’s making the profit here? Oh! The training college! Now it’s all becoming clear! You surely picked that Day wouldn’t run this training college out of the goodness of his neoliberal heart. What is not clear is whether the apprentices get paid for their on-the-job-training, and if so, how much – a crucial detail which so far has not been announced. Another question is, what will established tradies think when apprentices turn up on site, without a qualified trades person as their trainer, taking work from them? Even the fake-tradie might not vote Liberal anymore.
You see what I mean by a web? Suddenly the scandal over Day’s Senate resignation has blown up so that he’s just a fly in the web, broken wings, legs flapping. But Turnbull is the spider. You have to ask yourself, apart from Turnbull’s wish to smash a wrecking ball through the long-standing and successful Australian apprenticeship on-the-job-training system which has worked well for tradies, and in turn, the Australian economy for generations, and to promote yet another kick-in-the-guts-to-young-people, what do the Liberals want from this gift to Day? Why are they so suddenly, hypocritically keen to contradict the ‘private vocational training is making too much money’ line they rolled out only weeks ago?
A Senate vote? A single vote helping to pass the Australian Building and Construction Commission, in a bid to wreck construction unions, which, surely-not-another-coincidence, work to uphold the rights and wage conditions for construction workers INCLUDING APPRENTICE WAGES! Just wow. The whole saga is, what’s the word I’m looking for, it’s right on the tip of my tongue. Absurd? Yes. It’s all revoltingly absurd.