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Beyond the Left-Handed Screwdriver: The Need for Apprenticeship Reform

A group of young workers are gathered at Trades Hall on a Wednesday night. There’s an anxious energy in the room. For some, it’s the first activist meeting they’ve been to since before the pandemic, and for others, it's their first ever. Sitting in a circle, it feels a bit like a support group. It is, in some ways, since support structures for apprentices are basically non-existent. This is the first place they’ve been able to be totally honest about their experiences. 

But it’s not just about support and solidarity: there’s very much an agenda here. 

“As an apprentice, you don’t really know your worth,” says Josh. “You don’t know what your rights are.” The room nods in agreement: everyone here knows this feeling well. “It’s really hard to stand up when you feel like your job’s constantly on the line. I just kind of bit my tongue and rolled with it.”

A group of young workers at Trades Hall discussing the need for apprenticeship reform in Victoria.

A group of young workers at Trades Hall discussing the need for apprenticeship reform in Victoria.

A handful of attendees phoned organisers earlier in the evening to say they couldn’t come because their bosses were making them work late. (The irony is lost on no one.)

The stories start to come out, one by one around the room. 

“I had $46,000 in wages stolen from me,” says Daniel. Everyone gasps at the dollar figure, but then they nod again because it’s by no means beyond imagining. Wage theft among apprentices is rampant. The Young Workers Centre’s records show that 75% of apprentices who contact them have experienced wage theft. 

Deeper than the widespread wage theft is the psychological damage which can linger for years and years. 

“The boss would take his anger out on the apprentices, even if you were doing the right thing,” says Josh. “He’d set you up to fail. He’d tell you to do something, you’d do it, and then he would turn around and ask you why you’d done it. 

“You’d get constantly put down, and constantly feel like shit. At the end of it, you’d think - well, why am I even waking up in the morning to be abused like this?”

Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t make for a great learning environment, which is supposedly the point of an apprenticeship. 

Joseph, who completed a baker’s apprenticeship, says that the standards of education are often incredibly low. “We didn’t go to the school. We had the guy come out to us and you’d get like one hour of theory a month. He’d come out, give us some books and leave, pretty much.”

Joseph no longer works as a baker, but he’s keen to see the system improved.

Josh, Audrey and Joseph are all current or former apprentices

Josh, Audrey and Joseph are all current or former apprentices

“With bakers especially, it’s so hard because you start so young, often straight out of high school. So you feel like you should be going to TAFE at some point, but then you think it’s fine, it’ll come. Surely they’ll look after me.” Many apprentices miss out on fundamental training, and that's a risk to their future health and safety.

Breaking the Cycle

Years of mistreatment will leave a mark, a kind of intergenerational trauma among tradespeople. When apprentices are abused, the damage can stay with them after they become qualified. When that abuse is normalised, some go on to perpetuate it… while others resolve to break the cycle.

Years of mistreatment will leave a mark, a kind of intergenerational trauma among tradespeople.

Audrey, a first-year electrical apprentice attending the meeting, is having a positive experience because her boss had such a bad time as a woman in a male-dominated industry. “She had a really horrible apprenticeship. For the first couple of years, she was with this boss who was really abusive,” Audrey tells us in the hallway after the meeting is over and people are milling about, swapping more stories. 

“She had a bad time and wasn’t being taught properly at all. Now that she’s gone out on her own and is starting to hire people, she wants to make sure that I don’t go through the same experience she did.” 

If everyone was like Audrey’s boss and mentor, conscious and well-meaning, meetings like this one wouldn’t be necessary. But she’s very much the exception to the norm, and systemic change is needed. 

Towards an Apprenticeship Licensing System

The current rate of completion for apprenticeships in Victoria is 46% - which puts Victoria as the poorest-performing state in the country. In the construction trades, apprenticeship cancellations rose 20% between 2016 and 2020. Cancellations in electrotechnology and telecommunications rose almost 25% for the same period. Across all industries, 70,000 workers dropped out of apprenticeships in those four years. 

With stories like the ones above, it isn’t too difficult to see why. 

It all points to the need for massive reform in the apprenticeship system. The first and most important change apprentices want to see is a license for employers to take on apprentices. Currently, virtually anyone who wants an apprentice can get one - even if they’ve abused apprentices in the past. Too often, dodgy employers exploit the apprenticeship system as a source of cheap labour. Many apprentices find themselves spending more time doing menial tasks like digging trenches or cleaning than being exposed to the technical elements of the work they are supposed to be learning. Without a system to ensure employers are above board, this behaviour can continue unchecked. 

This is why young apprentices - organising through the Young Workers’ Centre - are launching the campaign, Safe Apprentices, Good Bosses, to fix apprenticeships and win real change in trades. And that’s not nothing. The Young Workers Centre has campaign chops. “Wage theft” wasn’t even a phrase used in Australia before young workers took it on, and now Victoria’s wage theft laws are the envy of the country.  

A mass meeting of apprentices across all industries is scheduled for the 6th of May. Scott Collom, a former electrical apprentice and now an organiser for the Young Workers Centre, said it was an organising opportunity for the whole union movement.

“We need you to talk to your kids, your cousins, your neighbour who is doing an apprenticeship, and get them along to this mass meeting. We can smash this bad model and make apprenticeships good jobs, but we need apprentices and trainees in every industry to speak up together”. 

Join the campaign.

A group of young workers are gathered at Trades Hall on a Wednesday night. There’s an anxious energy in the room. For some, it’s the first activist meeting they’ve been to since before the pandemic, and for others, it's their first ever. Sitting in a circle, it feels a bit like a support group. It is, in some ways, since support structures for apprentices are basically non-existent. This is the first place they’ve been able to be totally honest about their experiences.

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