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THE Turnbull Government is working on a secret rescue package to compensate thousands of Queensland apprentices underpaid because of advice provided by its own workplace relations watchdog.
The embarrassing blunder could cost taxpayers $30 million in backpay, sparking high-level Cabinet talks of a bailout for training organisations and small businesses faced with a blowout in wages.
It is understood there are fears a recent Federal Court decision, which found first and second-year apprentices should have been paid higher rates since 2014, could send businesses broke and cost apprentices their jobs.
One source said up to 10,000 apprentices may have been underpaid.
Group training companies, which hire out apprentices, and small businesses also now have to pay their employees significantly more – in some cases an extra $150 a week.
The Fair Work Ombudsman published pay rates for apprentices in Queensland, which were found to be incorrect by a Federal Court decision in November.
The appeal period was reached last week.
The Courier-Mail has been told the Government is working on taking a compensation package to Cabinet but wants the Palaszczuk Government to contribute.
Electrical Trades Union apprentice co-ordinator Scott Reichman told The Courier-Mail letters would be sent to about 30 training organisations, which employ thousands of apprentices, warning the union “would coming knocking”. It is identifying apprentices who have claims.
Queensland applied to exempt its apprentices from national modern award changes in 2010.
It was written into legislation, however, when sunset provisions were reached in 2014, the FWO advised employers the state award would continue.
The Commonwealth warned the Newman and Palaszczuk governments of a looming problem and were asked to support transitional arrangements.
“It is disappointing that successive Queensland governments did not take steps to prevent this situation from occurring,’’ a spokeswoman for Jobs Minister Michaelia Cash said yesterday.
“The Commonwealth Government is prepared to work with the Queensland Government to provide assistance to protect the viability of the many small businesses that are affected and also protect the jobs of affected apprentices.”
However, Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said the Government would not cop the blame caused by a federal agency.
“With the appeals process exhausted, it is now beyond doubt that employers in Queensland must start paying their apprentices under the relevant federal award if they are not already doing so,’’ Ms Grace said.