Standing up for apprentices who got stuck with big bills

Nicholas McCallum

Fact-checking a minister on the radio just one reason this delegate got the Bob Donnelly Award. 

CEPU SA workplace delegate Adrian Valente is always there to stand up for his workmates. That’s why he was awarded the CEPU SA’s 2nd Bob Donnelly Award for embodying the true union spirit in his efforts fighting for apprentices. 

Despite having a very trying year that included losing his job and thousands in unpaid wages, super and entitlements when Adelaide Central Electrical (ACE) went bankrupt, Adrian, a CEPU SA state councillor, fact-checked South Australian Skills Minister David Pisoni on Adelaide’s No1 talk-back radio show and got some justice for his young workmates.

“I was pretty shocked, I didn’t expect it to happen,” Adrian said.

Toward the end of 2018 the CEPU was fighting with TAFE SA management on behalf of some of our apprentices who were left with thousands of dollars in unpaid TAFE fees after their boss went to the wall.

Adrian Valente presented with the CEPU's Bob Donnelly Award for 2018 by State Secretary John Adley.

In September ACE filed for bankruptcy. The company left a dozen of its apprentices with unpaid TAFE fees, some owing near $3000. Adrian was working at a new job with one who was being told to pay $1000 or he would not get his parchment.

It was a lot of money for a young worker to be stuck with. But when added to the fact some of the workers are owed thousands of dollars in wages and super (more than $2 million in entitlements was not paid to ACE workers), CEPU Apprentice Organiser Alex Capper said it was a big kick in the guts for them.

“When these apprentices came to us and said that’d been told to pay these bills, we though it was totally outrageous,” Capper said.

“Some of these young workers were being told they owed close to $3000 on top of all the wages and entitlements they’d lost.”

A couple of the workers had even done their capstones and were being prevented from completing their apprenticeships because the TAFE was holding their parchments to ransom over the unpaid amounts.

The CEPU took the members’ case to TAFE SA to see if it would waive the fees for these workers who found themselves in a crumby situation that was entirely of their bosses’ making.  

“We were told these apprentices’ situations would be given consideration but we’re not satisfied with TAFE SA’s response,” Capper said.

“TAFE was essentially preventing these workers from completing their apprenticeships and keeping them in limbo for a debt we said wasn’t theirs to pay.”

CEPU SA Apprentice Officer Alex Capper cooking up some snags for new recruits.

After being stonewalled by TAFE management, the CEPU got the story picked up by the Adelaide Advertiser. It wasn’t long until 5AA’s Leon Byner was speaking about it on air.

Adrian said Byner runs a fair radio show and often when he “sees something in the paper that sparks his interest, he’ll speak about it on his show”.

“He’s always been big on apprentices, saying learning trades and skills are really important,” he said. 

When state Skills Minister Pisoni was asked about the TAFE bills on air, he tried to deny the apprentices were being stiffed all over again after losing their jobs.

Enter Adrian Valente, who called up the radio station to correct the minister on the fact that TAFE was refusing to show any grace or lenience toward the apprentices.

“Leon asked him straight out, these apprentices at failed electrical company, do they have to pay their TAFE fees? And Pisoni said, ‘No, no,’” Adrian recalled.

“I called up and told Leon that I worked at that company and work with some of the apprentices that are affected, and the one who had to pay the $1000.

“That afternoon, the apprentices got calls that they wouldn’t have to pay. And the apprentice that paid, he got a refund. He’s the one that nominated me.”

Thankful he was no longer light a grand, the apprentice went around site to gather testimonials on Adrian to nominate him for the 2018 Bob Donnelly Award. 

State secretary John Adley was so impressed by Adrian’s effort he headed to his jobsite the week before Christmas to personally recognise his fighting union spirit.

“It was the apprentices at his workplace that nominated him because he stood up for them in the fight over their TAFE fees that they copped after the fall of ACE,” Adley said.

“It’s always good to go visit his site because you know that you have a strong unionist who stands up in the true spirit of solidarity and really goes above and beyond for his workmates.

“He’s a good example of doing the right thing on the job and we were happy to reward and recognise him for it.”

Adrian’s efforts give us much to admire and emulate. But we need to remember that dodgy bosses escaped $5 million that their workers didn’t. Workers’ wages, super, holidays, RDO and TAFE fees were all unfairly lost.

Dodgy bosses get away with too much. Bankruptcy should not be a get-out-of-jail-free card. This is another reason why we’re fighting to Change the Rules across the country so we can see fairness restored in our workplaces so young workers don’t pay the price for their bosses’ bad behaviour or business decisions. 


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