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Issue No. 255 11 March 2005  

A Skillful Ruse
If you ever wanted a case study into the adage that big business is all about ‘privatising the profits and socialising the losses’ then look no further than the current skills crisis.


Interview: Dot.Com
Evan Thornley was a labour activist. Then he rode the tech wave. Now he's home with new ideas on how Labor can win the economic debate.

Workplace: Dirt Cheap
In her new book, Elizabeth Wynhausen learns how hard it is to live on the minimum wage.

Industrial: Daddy Doesn’t Live With Us Anymore
Andreia Viegas’ tells the story of the loss her young family has felt since her husband was killed at work, and the need for justice for families who fall victim to industrial manslaughter.

Economics: Who's Afraid of the BCA?
Big Business's agenda for Australia has gone from loopy to mainstream at the speed of light, writes Neale Towart

International: From the Wreckage
Working people across Iraq are struggling to build their own independent unions – and are successfully organising industrial action on the vital oil fields as well as in hotels, transport outlets and factories, Writes Andrew Casey

Politics: Infrastructure Blues
With much attention given belatedly to the shortage of infrastructure, little attention has been given to the structure of infrastructure, writes Evan Jones

History: Meat and Three Veg
A new book recounts the impact of the Depression on women workers, writes Neale Towart,

Savings: Super Seduction
Sharks are circling your super. From July 1, banks and financial planners will have access to the nesteggs of an extra four million workers, writes Jim Marr.

Politics: Popping the 'E-Word'
Federal shadow treasurer Wayne Swan unveils Labor's new economic doctrine.

Poetry: To Know Somebody
This week saw an appointment to the ABC Board that was even more breathtaking than that of Liberal Party figure Michael Kroger. Resident Bard David Peetz celebrates the occasion with a reworking of an old Bee Gees hit.

Review: Off the Rails
A new play on the impact of rail privatisation in Britain has a poignant message for Sydney commuters, writes Alex Mitchell


 Killer Company Sent Down

 Once Upon a Time in Bexley

 Defence Contractor at War

 Steeple Takes a Tumble

 Tribunal Goes the Bash

 Nurses On Top

 Uni Rolled on Casuals

 Howard Strips GEERS

 Septics Dump On Aussie Jobs

 Banks Safety Interest

 Feds Should Help Kids

 Safety Stars at Opera House

 Three Dollars Free For Readers

 Toast the Days Of Old

 Clinton Boycotts Hotel

 Activist’s What’s On


The Soapbox
The Big Picture
Think about this: It takes 150 tonnes of iron ore to buy a plasma TV, writes Doug Cameron.

The Locker Room
Reducto Ad Absurdo
Phil Doyle offers advice for the lovelorn, and finds that things are getting smaller

New Matilda
Work is In
The rise and fall of the working hours debate in france is relevent to Australian workers, writes Daniel Donahoo and Tim Martyn

The Westie Wing
Our favourite MP surveys the upcoming conservative centralist collective attack.

Postcard from Harvard
Australian union officials making the annual pilgrimage to the Harvard Trade Union Program learnt that, at least, they are not alone, says Natalie Bradbury.

 The Auld Mug
 Banks Are Great
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A Skillful Ruse

If you ever wanted a case study into the adage that big business is all about ‘privatising the profits and socialising the losses’ then look no further than the current skills crisis.

While our captains of industry moan about a shortage of labour and calls for more government hand-outs, and policy makers scratch their heads about the appropriate response, nobody seems to be talking about the bleeding obvious - this is a failure of market deregulation writ large.

There was a time when the big public sector agencies not only delivered services to the community but were the training ground of the blue collar workforce.

Qantas, Telecom, the railways, electricity commissions and water boards - they trained young Australians in their tens of thousands every year, a public investment in the nation's future economic prosperity.

As recently as the mid-eighties Government Business Enterprises employed 21 per cent of all electrical apprentices, 10 per cent of building apprentices and nine per cent of metal apprentices.

Through the late eighties and nineties these organised were privatised or corporatised on the grounds that private sector disciplines would lead to 'more efficient' service delivery.

Deciphered, this meant that in order to deliver a profit to either shareholders or the government, the said organisations would need to shed workers, charge consumers more and pay their managers a whole lot extra.

To prove their inflated value these managers would need to find ways to cut the costs of their organisation and one of the easiest cuts was getting rid of apprentice schemes.

After all, when you judge your performance over a 12 month cycle, where is the benefit in investing time and effort in training someone who may not reap a return for years into the future?

They were nothing if not effective. By the late 1990's Government Business Enterprise apprenticeships had been reduced by 80 per cent. In all, it's been estimated that the withdrawal of the public sector accounted for around one third of the decline in apprentice intakes over the last 10 years.

So what happened to the training agenda?

At the behest of business, the government switched the emphasis to government subsidies via the New Apprenticeship schemes, a version of corporate welfare designed to provide a cost incentive to invest in young people.

True to form the business community has proceeded to rort this system in a manner that would do the National Party proud, turning burger flipping, cappacino making and cleaning into 'trades' - despite the fact these are high-churn industries where the benefits of training are never realised.

Of course, the attraction of this type of training is that it is cheap and fast for the employer to deliver - compared to the rigour of traditional apprenticeships; while failing to demonstrate any semblance of a career structure.

The collapse of public sector apprentiships and the abuse of these youth training subsidies are the root cause of the decade-long lag in training that is now biting us on the collective backside.

The response of our pro-business, 'let enterprise be free', federal government has been illuminating.

First and foremost, it is attempting to dampen the economically rational response to high demand in labour (ie wage rises) by taking away the few remaining rights to collectively bargain. Even business, when you strip away the BCA opportunism, recognises that IR is not the main game.

In fact, if the New Zealand experience is anything to go by, deregulation actually exacerbates the skills shortage - the lower wages pushing workers offshore leaving a massive gap in the labour market.

Secondly, it is throwing more money at employers to establish their own training institutions, free of the constraints of educational principles - surely a case of throwing good money after bad.

Instead, government - at both federal and state levels - should be using its considerable influence as a purchaser of private sector goods and services to require training of young people. The seeds of such a procurement policy have already been sown in NSW and should be expanded.

And finally, in a superb display of political irony, they are opening the gates to guest workers to fill the short term gaps, many of whom could well be the more fortunate cousins of the political refugees we went into a lather trying to keep out of our country just a few short years ago.

The skills shortage exposes weaknesses in the Australian economy, but in addressing the impact in a piecemeal fashion that is still premised on the efficiency of the free market, we risk compounding the problems even further.

Peter Lewis



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