As an apprentice, AMWU member Jae Wassell was bullied by his boss, injured multiple times and prevented from going to TAFE. This is why he wants the system changed.
Jae is a qualified boilermaker now, but completing his apprenticeship was anything but guaranteed. The employer seemed totally uninterested in Jae's apprenticeship requirements. He was treated as nothing more than cheap, expendable, exploitable labour. At around $9 an hour, working unsupervised doing the work of a ticketed boilermaker, Jae says it was obviously about cutting corners and maximising profits with no regard to safety.
"You’d work inside these containers, these barrels. There’d be no ventilation, no extraction fans, nothing. You’d have a p95 mask. You’d be in there for four hours, but within an hour the thing would be black and you couldn't breathe through it. So you’d end up taking it off and they wouldn’t have many of them. The boss would be like – what do you need more for?"
If that story sounds familiar to you - apprentices working unsupervised in unventilated spaces - it should. Dillon Wu, also an apprentice and AMWU member, was killed in similar circumstances in 2019. Jae worked for the same company as Dillon, and once he became qualified and no longer worked there he blew the whistle on the company's practices. He only had the confidence to do that because he was qualified. His future was no longer totally reliant on not making waves.
Dillon was two weeks into his apprenticeship when he was killed, which Jae says would have made him all the more vulnerable.
"The fact that he was only there for two weeks," he says. "You’re so green when you’re an apprentice in your first couple of weeks, you don’t know what to do, what to say. You don’t know whether you should speak out, because you don’t want to lose your job. If you say something, you might get punished for it."
The physical risk to life and limb was one thing, the psychological trauma another.
They were very racist, very homophobic, very abusive, physically and verbally.
Jae learned fast the workplace was not a place for vulnerability.
"I openly said to [my mentor] that I was bisexual - or more bicurious but that doesn’t really matter - and he told another bloke and another bloke and eventually the boss came in and said, 'Oh are you bisexual are you mate, are you gonna try and fuck me?'"
So what needs to change? Well, the cycle needs to be broken.
Poorly-run apprenticeships produce poor tradespeople. And the experience of being bullied, once normalised, often produces more bullies.
"It is no way to teach anyone. It's a way to make cowboys out of tradesmen and that’s unfortunately a problem that’s becoming rampant in today’s trades," says Jae.
"The foreman who was at the company was bullying people. He himself did his apprenticeship there and worked there for 20 years afterwards. So he treated everyone the same as he was. He thought that was normal because it’s all he’d known."
If you're an apprentice and this sounds all too familiar to you, it's time to stand up. The Young Workers Centre is gearing up for a campaign to stop the exploitation of apprentices in Victoria.