Row over Abbott's 'green army'

A ''green army'' of 15,000 young people will be paid as little as half the minimum wage, as fresh details emerge of the federal government's plan to create Australia's largest environmental workforce.

The plans have attracted the ire of the ACTU, which says the workers will be excluded from protections granted by federal workplace laws and says the program threatens to reset youth wage rates sharply lower.

Under legislation introduced by Environment Minister Greg Hunt on Wednesday, green army participants - who will be aged 17 to 24 - will work up to 30 hours a week.

Young people who fill the green army's ranks will be paid about half the minimum wage, earning between $304.20 and $493.70 a week.

The wages compare with $622.20 a week for the minimum wage and the basic rate of $250.50 a week for a single person getting Newstart, or the dole. The scheme is modelled on John Howard's Green Corps, and will be an alternative to work-for-the-dole programs.

Those enlisted will do manual labour, including clearing local creeks and waterways, fencing and tree planting.

Green army members will be exempt from Commonwealth workplace laws, including the Work Health and Safety Act, the Fair Work Act and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

They will be given the chance to take part in formal training as part of their duties, but will lose their Centrelink benefits.

The scheme could dent the youth joblessness rate of 12.4 per cent but Mr Hunt's office stressed that it was ''an environmental and training program, not an employment program''.

Mr Hunt said the scheme would pay young people ''significantly'' more than they would receive from Centrelink allowances, and he hoped that the skills young people learnt on the job would encourage them to move into full-time work.

''It's giving every young person in Australia the chance to do something for the environment, and it's bizarre that anybody would oppose, at this time, a youth training program that helps the environment and increases, significantly, the youths' wages.''

But ACTU president Ged Kearney said workers should be covered by appropriate workplace protections.

''This is about taking away well-paid, well-protected jobs from people and replacing them with low-paid, unsafe jobs,'' she said. ''This is not about getting people on the margins of the workforce into work; this is about providing a low-paid workforce.''

Mr Hunt said all members would be covered by workplace protections including state and territory occupational health and safety laws, insurance provided by the government and by ''service providers'' paid by the government to recruit, establish and manage teams. They would also be protected by federal work health and safety ''compliance orders''.

The government will target indigenous Australians, people with disabilities, gap-year students, graduates and the unemployed.

Greens MP Adam Bandt said: ''Only Tony Abbott could create a 'workforce' where the workers aren't legally workers and have no workplace rights. 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.''

Labor's environment spokesman, Mark Butler, said the government should release more details. ''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. Of considerable concern are the exemptions from work health and safety, compensation and industrial relations laws.''

 Adam Bandt. Picture: PENNY BRADFIELD

Adam Bandt. Picture: PENNY BRADFIELD


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