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Chief Executive of the Metal Trades Industries Association discusses the youth training wage

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Employment Minister, Simon Crean, meets with employer groups tomorrow to discuss their opposition to the training wages announced in the White Paper only weeks ago. The youth training wage was one of the White Paper's key initiatives and was embraced by business at the time, although it now seems there's been a change of mind. Some key business leaders are saying that the new wage between $125 and $333 a week will cost too much. Even the Metal Trades Industries Association, one of the biggest supporters of the initiative, is reported in today's press to be backing away from the plan. We're joined on the line by the Chief Executive of the MTIA, Bert Evans, and he's speaking to Fran Kelly.

FRAN KELLY: Bert Evans, what's going on? Is business, including the MTIA, now unhappy with the youth training wage?

BERT EVANS: That's a very good question. I don't know what's going on. These negotiations have been going on for some considerable time. We had a meeting in Simon Crean's office a few weeks ago when all the business groups present announced that they'd agreed in principle to the training wage. Now, we all had some concerns for various parts of it. Then last week, the stories were all running wild that MTIA had somehow been engaged in secret negotiations with the ACTU. Well, they're hardly very secret. It's been an arrangement entered into before a full bench of seven people on transcript before a packed courtroom where people .. the ACTU has .... negotiating with MTIA. When the negotiations are complete, they come back to the full bench for further discussions. And the President of the Commission said: Any comments? Any disagreement with that? Nobody commented; they all acquiesced, and then we get these allegations last week of secret negotiations.

FRAN KELLY: But not just that.

BERT EVANS: One of the worst kept secrets in Australia's history.

FRAN KELLY: We also read, though, in the Australian newspaper today that you sent a letter to the Employment Minister saying that the new training wages are alarmingly higher than existing awards and employees in metal and clerical sectors are substantially more expensive now to employ. I mean, did you write that and do you believe that?

BERT EVANS: I wrote that, certainly. I wrote it a fortnight ago and we've had extensive and intensive negotiations since that time, particularly with Bill Kelty, the one I negotiate with. One would have to say about Bill Kelty and Lindsay Fox, they were two that got out, got up off their backsides like most others haven't, including me, and went out and got 50,000 jobs. And Kelty simply said to me: 'We can't have 250 different trainees; we can't have 55 different rates of pay because when you go out to sell it, people say: Okay, I'll put on a trainee, but what's the rate?'. Then Kelty and Lindsay Fox have to say: Well, we don't know the rate. We'll get somebody to come and tell you later. He said: We simply have to simplify it; there are going to be winners and losers. And Kelty's saying to me: All you want me to do is have all the losers, and you want to have all the winners because at the top of the scale you can put on a long-term unemployed for $10 a week. You can't ask for anything more than that from the employers' point of view. At the bottom of the scale there is a problem, and that's why we haven't agreed to the rates. We've simply said there is a problem there, but one has ...

FRAN KELLY: Will you agree to the rates, ultimately?

BERT EVANS: We've got discussions tomorrow with Simon Crean. There's further proceedings before the full bench on the 29th. But the ultimate test is this, Fran - we are not going to put at risk this whole training wage because of a low-level rate for the bottom. Our rates of pay in our award are artificially low - I'm the first to concede that. We've only put on 250 trainees out of thousands and thousands in Australia. We haven't been out selling it. The majority of our members have never looked at the training wage, so they wouldn't know whether it's gone up or down. But I have an obligation. I'm under instructions from our national executive that Australia's number one problem is the high levels of unemployment, particularly long-term unemployed, and MTIA is going to do all it can, and our members are doing it now, to give the long-term unemployed a reasonable go.

FRAN KELLY: Isn't the whole point of the youth training wage, though, to make it cheaper to employ people, and if one end of the scheme, that's not working, couldn't it defeat the whole purpose of it?

BERT EVANS: It could throw the whole purpose out, and this is what the debate's about. Do you say, because of a few people at the bottom of the scale that we were concerned about - Kelty says in an artificial way he said to me: Well, what have you done? How dare you sit here complaining about the low level of wages at the bottom. You haven't got out and sold it - I have.

FRAN KELLY: But all that aside, isn't it true that if this debate's still going on now when the deal was supposed to .. has been announced by the Government, was supposed to have been all signed, sealed and delivered, is it now under threat?

BERT EVANS: It could be. I don't think it will because there's been a lot in this. You see, one of the questions in this is the junior rates of pay, which is an explosive issue for employers, have been shelved for three years to let this training wage begin. Now, if the training wage falls over, the Government and the ACTU are likely to say: Okay, this three-year moratorium on junior rates is now abolished, and those who employ juniors in large numbers can pay them the adult rates. Now, we aren't, in our industry, large employers of juniors. There are plenty of other industries who are. And I think when they face that crunch, and we've had to face .. it's all right for people sitting back in multi-storey ivory towers, but when you face these crunches as we've done in the last couple of weeks, they look you straight in the eye, Crean and Kelty, and say: You're going to put a training wage at jeopardy because of a few artificially low rates in your industry? And the answer to that is going to be no, we're not going to do it.

FRAN KELLY: Bert Evans, thank you very much.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Bert Evans from the MTIA was speaking to Fran Kelly in Canberra.