UNEMPLOYED young people from Frankston and the Mornington Peninsula will soon be able to apply to join the Coalition government’s Green Army environmental training scheme but they will be paid well below the minimum wage and won’t be covered by national health and safety laws or be eligible for workers compensation.
Legislation for $300 million Green Army scheme recently tabled in federal parliament by Environment Minister and member for Flinders Greg Hunt has drawn fierce criticism from unions, environmental groups and legal experts.
Under the Green Army legislation, 250 projects involving approximately 2500 “volunteer trainees” will begin around Australia this year before the scheme is expanded to become Australia’s largest-ever environmental workforce, with 15,000 participants engaged in 1500 projects by 2018.
If the legislation is passed, programs in Frankston and on the Mornington Peninsula will be among the country’s first, with the Frankston Bushland Weed and Fire Management Project slated to begin on 1 July.
This project will see recruits undertake “weed eradication and fuel reduction activities in the many natural bushland reserves in Frankston City”, according to federal member for Dunkley Bruce Billson.
But those carrying out the work – which will be mostly manual labour – will be paid as little as $304.20 a week.
Of greater concern to critics is the fact Green Army workers would be exempt from Commonwealth workplace laws, including the Work Health and Safety Act, the Fair Work Act and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.
Slater & Gordon senior compensation claims lawyer Rachael James said the lack of worker compensation provisions in the Green Army legislation was “extremely worrying for people who care about the consequences of work place injuries”.
“We are very concerned that members of the [Green Army] will not be protected in the same way as other workers,” she said.
“These young workers will undertake heavy manual labour, including clearing local creeks and waterways, fencing and tree planting – work that carries a high level of physical risk.”
Ms James said workers compensation schemes focused on early intervention for injured employees in order to help them return to work as quickly as possible. Without compensation and rehabilitation assistance there was a risk workers suffering a serious injury may never be able to return to work.
“If state and federal governments are serious about providing these young workers with a fair and reasonable opportunity to join the workforce, they should work together to provide them with the same workplace injury protection as other employees in Australia,” she said.
The Green Army scheme is open to people aged 17 to 24, with each project involving nine trainees and one team leader who will work up to 30 hours a week over a 20-26 week training period. Wages budgeted in the legislation are based on the national training allowance and depend upon the participant’s age and educational level.
Responding to criticism that the allowance approved for trainees would be below award wages, Environment Minister and Flinders MP Greg Hunt said the Green Army scheme was intended as a job creation scheme.
“The Green Army is a voluntary environmental and training program, not an employment program,” he said.
“The pay will be commensurate to the national training wage. It ranges between $608.40 and $987.00 per fortnight, depending on a participant’s age and educational level.
“It is substantially higher than Newstart, which ranges between $452.30 and $699.90 a fortnight, or Youth Allowance, which ranges between $226.80 and $699.90 per fortnight.”
The program aimed to encourage “hands-on, practical, grassroots action to support local environment and heritage conservation projects across Australia” while at the same time providing an opportunity for young people to gain training and experience in environmental and heritage conservation fields “to help them explore career options in conservation management”, Mr Hunt said.
But Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney said the government should not be paying rates below the minimum wage and participants should be protected by national workplace laws.
“This whole concept of the Green Army is the latest attempt by the Abbott Government to cut wages [and] cut conditions of working people in this country,” she said. “If these jobs actually exist, then they should be advertised; they should be structured so they are well-paid, safe jobs.”
Australian Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt said it was concerning that Green Army workers would be exempt from appropriate workplace laws.
“Only Tony Abbott could create a ‘workforce’ where the workers aren’t legally workers and have no workplace rights,” he said. “If a Green Army supervisor and a worker under their command get injured while wielding a pick or building a lookout, the supervisor will have the same safety and compensation protections as ordinary employees but the worker won’t.’’
Opposition environment spokesman Mark Butler agreed, while also criticising the lack of details thus far provided by the government.
“With only four months until this program is due to start, no one is clear on the specific detail about how the Green Army will work,” he said. “Of considerable concern are the exemptions from work health and safety, compensation and industrial relations laws.’’
Mr Hunt said the government would soon open a tender process for the service providers who would “engage Green Army teams and supervisors manage activities to ensure projects are completed safely and report regularly on progress”.
Frankston’s Green Army project will be managed by Frankston City Council and will work on “priority areas determined following consultation with local fire authorities and stakeholders”, Mr Billson said.
These areas would include bushland reserves such as the Frankston Reservoir Reserve, Langwarrin and Pines Flora and Fauna Reserves, Seaford foreshore and wetlands, Sweetwater Creek and Boggy Creek Reserve, Bunarong Park, Paratea Reserve, Baxter Park and Belvedere Bushland Reserve.
Mr Billson also said the government would create “dedicated Green Army teams to support Kananook Creek clean-up works and weed eradication, access improvement and fuel reduction in Mt Eliza creek and coastal reserves”.
“Managing the fuel load while conserving significant habitat and flora in a balanced way requires careful, knowledgeable and time-consuming effort,” Mr Billson said.
“This important work, led by council, committed volunteers and ‘friends’ groups, will be greatly aided and accelerated by the Green Army project.”
On the Mornington Peninsula, Green Army projects will focus on Mt Martha-Balcombe Creek Nature Trail habitat enhancement, Southern Peninsula foreshore and creek rejuvenation, Red Hill South biolink and community reserve creation, and a peninsula-wide “war on weeds”.
A separate Western Port Green Army project will have four main areas of focus: Watsons Creek rehabilitation in Baxter and Somerville; foreshore revegetation and walking track construction in Hastings, Crib Point and Somers.
The projects will be carried out in conjunction with Mornington Peninsula and Western Port Biosphere Reserve Foundation, Mornington Peninsula Shire Council, Balcombe Estuary Rehabilitation Group, Red Hill Community Action Group and local Landcare groups.