A MAJOR review of apprentice wages will pit unions against employer lobby groups as the Fair Work Commission determines whether apprentices are being paid enough.
The case will run for most of the month, after the Australian Council of Trade Unions called on the commission increase pay rates for apprentices, many of whom were dropping out before completing their training.
ACTU secretary Dave Oliver said new research, commissioned by the unions, showed less than 50% of those who start an apprenticeship were actually finishing.
He said more dropped out of training than those who completed it, in part to low wages.
The research found apprentices today were older, more likely to be living independently, and more likely to have children of their own, than apprentices in the 1950s.
"Paying apprentices a living wage will make life easier for them and will help ensure Australia has enough skilled tradespeople for the future," Mr Oliver said.
"Apprentice wages are currently less than the minimum wage and sometimes only slightly higher than the Newstart allowance. They do not provide enough money for apprentices to survive."
While Mr Oliver said apprentices were still not being paid enough, a statement from Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox argued business could not afford to pay more.
Mr Willox argued a large number of apprentices were already being paid above the award for their industry, and the unions' claims would especially hurt regional businesses.
"The huge improvements in wages and conditions being pursued by the unions could result in the loss of many existing apprentices' jobs and many new apprenticeships not being offered, affecting the careers of many young people," he wrote.
"Apprentice numbers have fallen in the last year, but the evidence shows that this is due to the tough economic and business environment in sectors such as manufacturing which are big employers of apprentices.
"Making the cost of engaging an apprentice much higher will simply result in less apprentices being employed and more skill shortages for industry."
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