Two years ago, the Employment Opportunities Bill had its first reading in parliament. Judging by name only, it sounds like a bill intending to increase the availability of jobs. A quick look, however, at who was sponsoring and sponsoring the bill reveals it’s name was just a front for something far more sinister. Sponsoring was Conservative Sir Christopher Chope, who gained the notorious moniker of ‘Chopper’ when he pioneered Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ policy, selling-off vast amounts of Wandsworth Council’s housing stock. One supporter was Wellingborough MP, Peter Bone – who in 1995 was named by the Daily Mirror as Britain’s meanest boss when it transpired that he was paying a 17-year-old trainee at his travel agency business the fantastically generous wage of 87 pence an hour.
The real aim of the Employment Opportunities Bill was to allow employees to opt-out of the National Minimum Wage, if they so wished. Chope argued that some workers would benefit from lower wages as they would pay less in tax and National Contributions and therefore end up with more take-home pay than they would getting the minimum wage. If this caused an employer’s wage bill to decrease, then they could afford to take on more staff. Even if there is a certain amount to logic to this argument, Chope lost any support he may have garnered and reinforced his reputation for being a bit of a loose-cannon by arguing that making somebody work for a minimum wage contravenes their human rights. It was this argument that exposed the real purpose of the bill – abolishing the minimum wage.
It is plain that the scope for worker exploitation under the auspices of the bill was huge. People working for the National Minimum Wage are often young or vulnerable or migrant workers (or any combination of those) and the possibility of being coerced or bullied into signing an agreement cutting their pay could take place at any establishment employing people at NMW. To great relief, the bill put Chopper on a direct collision course with John Prescott who started a campaign called ‘Wage Concern’ with the fantastic result that Chope withdrew the bill on the morning it was due to be read for the second time.
This wasn’t a real u-turn on Chope’s part, however, as John Hannett, member of the Low Pay Commission and General Secretary of Usdaw, said the bill was, ‘a little insight into what a Conservative government would do’, as Chope may not have intended for the bill to pass. He was simply testing the water, seeing how much opposition he was likely to come up against and if a similar bill could be passed under a Conservative government. We now have a Conservative-led government and following the latest batch of unemployment figures, now is the time to start worrying.
In the same week Channel 4 produced a shocking report that low-waged people in Britain were relying on American-style food banks to feed their families, Dr Eamonn Butler, founder and director of the Adam Smith Institute – hailed as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite think-tank – published this disgraceful article calling for the scrapping of the minimum wage for young people as a means of mitigating the current 20.5% youth unemployment rate.
One great thing about the minimum wage is that it has set a precedent for pay for jobs that require minimal or no particular skills-training or specialist knowledge. As such, a 17 year old is just as capable as someone over the age of 21 at picking fruit, loading boxes, carrying bricks or data entry. Yet the 17 year old is entitled to £3.64 per hour, while the 21 year old can have £5.94. That in itself is an outrage and sadly, one Labour is responsible for. Yet Butler argues even for abolishing the lower rate, referring to the £4.92 rate for 18-21 year olds.
Most galling, however, are the arguments he makes. He says, ‘…many employers think that a large proportion of young people are just not worth that amount of money,’ which is an absolute fallacy as it’s well known that employers favour more experienced workers as they’ve been tried and tested, even if they cost more to employ.
Butler also uses youth unemployment to attack the state education system. He says young people ‘might, after a decade and a half of state education, even lack basic life skills’. Yeah, definitely. I occasionally get a 60-hour week on a building site because I went to Eton; the foreman was most impressed with the unsolicited reference he received commending some pebble-dashing I did at Buckingham Palace.
Apart from the usual high blood pressure, is it worth getting worked up about the callous words of one right-wing headbanger? Perhaps not, but in the midst of cuts affecting benefits, schools, hospitals and services people rely on, it would be foolish to say the NMW is safe for anyone from the likes of Butler, Chope and Bone. After all, the Tories opposed it when Labour first introduced it, and as has been proved countless times in the course of this parliament, you’re better off sticking a pencil in your eye than trusting a Liberal Democrat.