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Unions back big business on literacy -

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Unions back big business on literacy

Bronwyn Herbert reported this story on Monday, August 31, 2009 12:14:00

ELEANOR HALL: The head of Australia's building union says the low levels of literacy amongst
Australian workers is a major safety hazard in a high risk industry.

Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that almost half of working Australians don't
meet basic literacy and numeracy standards.

Today the Australian Industry Group and the Federal Government are launching a new national
literacy program to address the issue, as Bronwyn Herbert reports.

BRONWYN HERBERT: The ability to read a newspaper or understand a safety manual are skills often
taken for granted but the Bureau of Statistics estimates that almost half of all Australian workers
don't have the most basic literacy skills to meet on the job requirements.

The Australian Industry Group has now launched a project to improve literacy. Its chief executive
Heather Ridout says improved literacy means a safer and more productive workforce.

HEATHER RIDOUT: The OECD has estimated that a 1 per cent increase in our literacy skills could lead
to a 2.5 per cent increase in our labour productivity which is really needed and a 1.5 per cent
increase in GDP.

As well in industry we have major safety issues which will not be addressed unless people are
literate.

BRONWYN HERBERT: The AIG project with the financial backing of the Federal Government will work
with 10 businesses across four states. Each business will have more than 80 hours of literacy
training.

Senator Mark Arbib is the Federal Minister for Employment Participation.

MARK ABIB: I think most people would be surprised that there are many Australians that don't have
the numeracy and literacy to be able to complete their roles in the workplace.

And it's something that the Government is committed to improving. That's one of the areas in
employment but it is also one of the areas in schooling.

BRONWYN HERBERT: The ACTU president Sharan Burrow welcomes the project and says improving workplace
safety is paramount.

SHARAN BURROW: Most professions rely on capacity to communicate, to make sure that work processes,
particularly where there are dangerous goods or dangerous equipment, that those communication
processes are absolutely clear.

But beyond safety it's also an issue of opportunity, capacity to participate and productivity
really for the employers themselves. So all round literacy is a key issue.

BRONWYN HERBERT: How long has literacy been an issue for the Australian workforce?

SHARAN BURROW: Literacy has always been an issue and not surprisingly. We are a land of immigrants.
Our workforce is made up of immigrants. So as well as those people who struggle with literacy as
Australian born citizens we have a responsibility to support migrant workers to get the literacy
skills that are necessary, both as I said to perform functional work but also to provide them with
an opportunity to up-skill, to take on career challenges and the like.

So it's always been an issue in Australia, again largely in part because we are a migrant nation.

BRONWYN HERBERT: Heather Ridout says poor literacy levels is not just an issue for migrant workers.

HEATHER RIDOUT: One of the bright points has been that the skilled immigration program has actually
added to our literacy performance. So migrants are not the area that we have got to blame. It's our
own workforce.

And frankly we are going to do a major project our group over the next 12 months or so with the
support of the Government to try and look at it from an employer in a workplace point of view and
see what we can do from the grassroots in terms of lifting the literacy levels of the workforce.

BRONWYN HERBERT: Dave Noonan is the national secretary of the CFMEU's construction division.

DAVE NOONAN: I think that it's notorious that some people do struggle and find it hard to get
through and the building industry is an industry that does attract people who are practical, who
are "can do" people and people that perhaps haven't found their, you know, their strength inside a
classroom.

And so I think it has always been so that we've had, you know, people in the industry that didn't
do well at school.

BRONWYN HERBERT: Dave Noonan says it's something that unions and business have to work together to
address.

DAVE NOONAN: The building and construction industry, it's an industry that turns over a lot of
people. So we've had I think a very positive impact where we have been able to in working on this
issue with our members. But it's very clear that there's always new people coming into the
industry. There is always going to be an ongoing need for employers and unions and the community to
work on this as a priority issue.

ELEANOR HALL: And that's Dave Noonan from the CFMEU; Bronwyn Herbert with that report.