Interview by Claire Reilly

The Fair Work Commission began meeting this week to review wage rates for junior workers, and a proposal put forward by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) to lower the age of eligibility for adult award wages from 21 down to 18 years of age.

While the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) has raised concerns that the SDA’s campaign is expensive and “excessive”, the SDA argues that it is vital to ensure younger workers are properly recognised in the workplace.

We interviewed SDA national secretary Joe de Bruyn to discuss the campaign to bring higher wages to young employees, the impact it would have on the industry, and his responses to claims made by the ARA.

What are you hoping to achieve through the Fair Work Commission’s junior wage review?

Over a period of time, people have come to be treated as adults from the age of 18 onwards, but the only place where that didn’t extend to was the workplace. In the retail industry, if you’re 20, you only get 90 per cent of the adult rate. If you’re 19 years of age, you get 80 per cent of the adult wage.

We’ve been negotiating with retailers over the last ten years to get the adult rate applied to 20-year-olds, and by and large that’s been successful. So when the awards were opened up for review last year, we decided we would claim the principal of the adult rate from 18 onwards, and that the first step to achieving that should be the implementation of the adult rate from age 20.

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Why is this campaign so important to the SDA?

If you’re going to say that young people are adults from the age of 18, you can’t then say to them, ‘In the workplace we still think you’re a junior’. That’s a contradiction. Secondly, if you look at what people are doing in the retail industry, the work of a person aged 18 or 19 or 20 is no different to the work that’s done by a person that’s 21 or 50.

What is your response to ARA executive director Russell Zimmerman’s comments that your campaign “will only punish youth and small to medium retailers who can’t afford to make cosy agreements with the Union at a time when the sector is under significant cost pressure”?

This claim that we are making is not a significant cost impost at all. When we’ve negotiated with the larger retailers about bringing in the adult rate at 20, we’ve always asked them ‘What does this cost your business?’ And invariably the answer came back, ‘This costs us one half of one per cent of our wages bill’. This is not an expensive thing. And the reason why we are doing the claim in stages, rather than all in one fell swoop is precisely to meet the argument about the cost.

The ARA also said in a statement on Tuesday that this will impact the ability of retailers to provide youth employment and training. What is your response to that?

That’s nonsense as well. Most young people who are working in retail usually start at the age of 15 or 16. So by the time they’re 18, they’ve got 2 or 3 years or so of work under their belt, and at that stage, the retailer is not training them any further.

The adult rate at 18 has already been introduced in New Zealand [and] it came in one fell swoop from a particular date. Two years later, the Department of the Treasury of New Zealand and its Department of Labour…said there had been no noticeable impact on the employment of young people at all. So if this can be done in New Zealand in one fell swoop, without having any significant impact on employment, then surely we can do it in a phased and sensible way in Australia.

What are your thoughts on the opposition to this campaign?

The retailers who are fighting this in the commission are simply on the wrong side of history, and that’s how they’ll be judged. This is going to happen whether people like it or not, because it’s an injustice in the wages system whose time has come to be fixed up.