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Union leader discusses the OECD report criticising high wage rates for the long-term unemployed, youth and low-skilled workers

MONICA ATTARD: The OECD's proposals for reform of the labour market have been dismissed by the union movement. The latest report on the Australian economy from the Paris-based organisation says the industrial relations system is still too inflexible. It says high wage rates for youth, the long-term unemployed and low-skilled workers are reducing their chances of finding work, but Peter Robson, head of the Public Sector Union, says that idea is out of date. And Mr Robson says the Federal Government's proposal for a training wage is a better way of helping the unemployed. Peter Robson is speaking, here, to Lyndall Curtis in Canberra.

LYNDALL CURTIS: The OECD believes that the entry-level wages for youth, the long-term unemployed and unskilled workers are too high. If their wages were cut, wouldn't it make them more easily employable?

PETER ROBSON: Well, this is the, if you like, the American model - that is, if you cut the wage to $3 an hour, people will employ them and you'll solve the problem particularly of youth unemployment. I think that there are far stronger forces driving the reason or the rationale for people being employed in the economy than the wage rate. There's technology. There is, I think, among most Australian firms, now, very clear planning processes to streamline employment whatever the cost, and I just don't agree with the argument that says that if you cut the wage rate, then axiomatically, people are going to be employed. I think it's an old-fashioned argument; it's an argument which doesn't relate to what we want in Australia and that is a skilled work force, one which is able to compete in our region.

LYNDALL CURTIS: Is one way to get those groups either back into the work force or back in touch with the work force a nationally-standardised training wage?

PETER ROBSON: Well, I believe that providing we have a proper training regime - that is, that we are not going to throw people into the workplace under the sort of bogus heading of a training wage when, really, they are going to be employed as full-time employees. So providing we have a proper training regime, we have proper processes, proper accreditations, that there is a scope for a training wage in Australia, and I think it is one of the ways of getting young people into the work force and giving them proper training so that they can be re-employed, giving them a start. And another group that does concern me greatly - I know in my own area of activity is a number of redundancies occurring to people over 45, particularly men over 45, and really, we're dumping those people just onto the unemployment scrap heap and there is no process for retraining those people, and I think that this might give encouragement to that process as well.

LYNDALL CURTIS: In the negotiations you've been having with the Federal Government, do you believe that the Government is going to put up a proper training wage, as you say?

PETER ROBSON: Well, I'm not going to go into those discussions - they're confidential discussions. But I would say that I do think that it would be a positive step forward if we can have a proper training regime with a training wage which is an award rate, not one of these propositions that was proposed, say, at the last election, of $3 and hour, $6 an hour, whatever it was, but a proper award base so there's a proper base to the rate and a proper training regime - yes, I do think there is scope for that, and yes, I do hope that that approach does come out in the forthcoming months in the statement on employment and the Budget.

LYNDALL CURTIS: And is that something you believe the union movement, as a whole, would be willing to accept?

PETER ROBSON: Well, it's a tough call in the union movement. In our own area, we have 2,000 trainees currently employed and we have used traineeships and the new CST program extensively, so we are supporters of this approach. In other areas, it's not the case and it's always been a tough call. Generally, I believe that unions are very sympathetic to the position of the unemployed. They realise that something more has to be done. I mean, the traineeship program while in some areas is a success, hasn't been a success in others, and I think we've got to take a quantum move forward and maybe a different approach to ensure that long-term unemployed people are given the opportunity for training and retraining. The fact of life is that I know from the young people I mix with myself that people desperately want this opportunity, and we in the union movement must be encouraging of it, of making sure that they're paid properly and that they have a proper training regime.

MONICA ATTARD: Peter Robson of the Public Sector Union.