Wednesday, 5 December 2018
Statements by Senators
I rise today to discuss some serious issues in relation to apprentices. Apprenticeships and traineeships in this country, under the coalition, are in decline. The government has an appalling record on vocational education and apprenticeships. We now have 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees than we did when this government was elected. Forty-six per cent of employers engaging apprentices are non-compliant in providing apprentices their proper wages and conditions. It was the government's own regulator, the Fair Work Ombudsman, who found this out. Employers are repeatedly exploiting apprentices.
A Melbourne plumbing firm has churned through numerous apprentices, and we note that at least five of them lasted less than 100 days. It's not surprising that non-completion rates are so high, with almost half of the young people who commence an apprenticeship or traineeship not finishing that apprenticeship or traineeship. A recent survey by the AMWU, the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union, of their apprentices—and these are apprentices who are most likely to be in unionised, well-organised workshops—found that the key issues identified by apprentices were low pay, the cost of their tools, the lack of proper on-the-job mentoring, poor working conditions, including 13 per cent saying that they considered leaving their apprenticeship because of harassment and bullying, and poor-quality training and the cost of training. This is only the tip of the iceberg.
The position the government adopts is to throw more and more money at its mates in the context of apprenticeships. Former senator Bob Day was handed $2 million by Senator Birmingham and the government to look after 20 apprentices—a subsidy of something like $90,000 per apprentice. It's crazy stuff. We also see that we've now got the government picking up a One Nation thought bubble, and that's this so-called 'bush wage' where the government is actually funding the wages of apprentices, subsidising employers by funding the wages of apprentices. These some 1,600 apprentices will be spread around rural and regional Australia. There's a reason why apprentices are not engaged in rural and regional Australia to the extent that you would think they would be—that is that the conditions in some of these places are pretty bad. And I am really concerned about the safety implications for apprentices arising out of this One Nation thought bubble adopted by Senator Cash. I think it's really bad. Senator Cash needs to come to the chamber and explain what safety measures will be in place for these apprentices and what on- and off-the-job training will be available to these apprentices. You can't just run up a thought bubble and that's the end of the situation.
I want to raise it in the context of what we have seen recently in a metropolitan workshop with the tragic death of Dillon Wu, a young man, a 20-year-old undertaking his apprenticeship, who was contracted out by the Australian Industry Group to the company Marshall Lethlean. This young man, who was 20 years old, died on the job while working as an apprentice boilermaker for the Australian Industry Group, which is the company that was supposedly looking after this young man. He died on Thursday, 4 October. I spoke to his family today to get their permission for me to raise these issues in the Senate. They want this raised because they want no other young person to suffer the same fate as this young worker. He died in a tank. He was grinding welds in a tank. There was argon leaking from a line attached to the welding unit that was in the tank with him. There was no ventilation, no gas monitor, no spotter and no supervisor. No-one was checking on this young man. There was no air testing conducted prior to him starting work, and the apprentice did not have confined space certification. The welding unit was not suspended outside of the confined space, and, at the previous Dandenong facility of this company, that would have happened.
The AMWU health and safety rep was the first person on the scene. He jumped into the tank and was immediately overcome by fumes. I'm advised that he is so traumatised by this situation that he has had to leave the company. Members and other workers attempted to resuscitate the young boilermaker, but they were unsuccessful. What really concerns me is that, prior to this death, the Australian Industry Group, who employed the apprentice, had undertaken a safety analysis—an OHS Essentials Program report. What they found was that 11 out of 24 safety issues that were identified were considered high risk where this young apprentice died. And, according to the AiG's own analysis, high risk means a significant risk, an almost certain likelihood of a serious consequence. What could have been more serious than a young man in the prime of his life losing his life because of these problems? What was seen there was unbelievable.
The AiG, in its own report, indicated that there was a high risk in terms of risk management in this place. Risk assessments had not been undertaken on high-risk activities. Documented workplace inspections to identify and manage hazards had not been undertaken. This is just unacceptable in the middle of metropolitan Melbourne, yet we are now, under this government, going to send 1,600 apprentices to the bush to undertake apprenticeships, with no analysis of the safety risks and no planning for the safety or the training of those apprentices that I am aware of. Also, in this company that young Dillon Wu worked for, workers are currently working in confined spaces; however, risk assessments, permit systems and safe operating procedures are not available and/or used. This is a high risk that was identified by the Australian Industry Group themselves. To add to this tragedy, a WorkSafe inspector had actually attended this firm. Half an hour after he left, Dillon Wu died in a confined space. WorkSafe Australia were actually on that plant.
So how can this nonsense position be proposed? It's a One Nation thought bubble picked up by this coalition government to placate One Nation. Over 1,600 young people may end up in apprenticeships with no proper safety analysis being done and with no on- and off-the-the-job analysis being done. This must take place. I am really concerned. A thought bubble is not the way to look at apprenticeships in this country when apprentices are dying on the job. This government doesn't get it.
Senator Hanson interjecting—
Senator Hanson, you can interject all you like. You are an absolute disgrace, and interjecting when I'm trying to look after young workers' lives. What a disgrace you are—a racist disgrace. (Time expired)
Senator Hanson, I'm not running a protection racket for Senator Cameron at all. I just wanted to say that I didn't hear it. I'm sorry, but if you did—