How do you solve a problem like Cait?

13th February, 2013 6:29 pm

Cait Reilly, a 24 year old geology graduate from Birmingham being forced to work unpaid in Poundland for two weeks raises some searching questions about modern youth employment. Once you get over the media bile you have to ask the question – why are young workers treated this way? This isn’t some high school student out on a couple of weeks ‘work experience’, she’s an adult entitled to the National Minimum Wage.

Young people who find work are often treated abysmally because of their age. I know a young woman, lets’ call her Daisy, who works in a nursery on a zero hours contract – essentially she is at the whim of her employer as to how many hours a week she gets. If the boss doesn’t like you, you get fewer hours. Daisy been working there for over two years and is just about to turn twenty. In another two years, after four years at work, she’ll be entitled to the National Minimum Wage.

A few weeks ago I stood up in Basildon Council Chamber and spoke out against a Conservative administration which pays Council apprentices less than the minimum wage. The response from the Conservatives was uproar – not only did they defend this policy, they vociferously opposed the very concept of a minimum wage. Their argument was that these apprentices receive training and experience… so deserve less money.

I hear with depressing frequency of young people working for free in the hope that they will eventually secure a job – these unpaid jobs are euphemistically called internships, and are usually only open to those youngsters from well off families that can financially support them whilst they work for free. Again, we hear the defence of work experience and training. It was saddening to hear that HMV used unpaid intern labour to set up and staff its corporate Twitter account… though I must admit my respect for those same staff who turned Twitter against HMV as it sacked loyal employees.

It is an outrage that young people are treated in this way for no reason other than because of their age. Are they somehow less human? If not, then they deserve to be treated equally, with the same minimum standards.

How has this situation arisen?

I could bore you with the decline in skilled employment, the collapse of our industrial base, the restrictions on trade unions that prevent them from being effective industrial organisations. All of these points would be valid. However, the clearest demonstration lies in the decline in wages.

Wages as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declined from 65% in 1975 to 53% in 2009. In simple terms, the wages of the majority are being squeezed as well paid and stable employment is being replaced with low wages, insecure employment, and wage stagnation. Unless you are fortunate enough to work in the City or are a senior executive, you are probably worse off than your parents….. the average household income of fabled middle Britain is actually just £26,500 a year. This explains the explosion in credit as people seek to maintain housing and living standards that they can no longer afford.

This all has a consequence for young people – the politics of envy – and it is a politics the Conservatives are skilled at exploiting. The inhabitants of middle Britain can be talked into resenting young people on decent wages… its’ not easy when you are struggling to pay a mortgage and raise a family to watch your younger and less tied down colleagues going out and having fun. The arguments of right wing commentators that young people are being trained and given work experience and so deserve less are seductive… and only plays into the hands of employers, like Poundland, who are making a killing off the labour of young workers.

Whilst we can and must fight against workfare, oppose age rates in the minimum wage, and demand that interns deserve fair wages we must not confuse minimum employment standards with a wider economic problem – the decline in wages and the resultant squeeze on the newest members of the workforce. If we want to create an economy where there is room for youth rates and training wages above the minimum standards we apply to all other workers, then we must lift the wages of all employees – and the best means for achieving this is through collective bargaining.

Oh hang on, that takes us onto the importance of trade unions in a modern economy… how did that happen?

Byron Taylor is National Officer of the Trade Union & Labour Party Liaison Organisation, and a Labour Councillor (he writes in a personal capacity).

To report anything from the comment section, please e-mail [email protected]
  • Lets not forget how woefully ill-equipped Job Centres are when dealing with graduates. They just simply don’t understand the different needs different unemployed people have.

  • Many of the comments on Newsnight etc revolve around the Poundland scheme delivering a work ethic – but Cait was a science graduate (science timetables are generally fuller at university because of the practical sessions as well as the lectures and seminars), already doing voluntary work linked with her qualification. Why would she need to fill shelves to prove she knows how to get up in the morning? The argument is tissue-thin and pathetic, and an excuse to utilise free labour,

Latest

  • Comment Featured Uncategorized Britain seems to be fragmenting but English socialism is being reborne

    Britain seems to be fragmenting but English socialism is being reborne

      by Tom Kelsey and Jon Wilson The referendum brought to light deep fractures that risk destroying the left, and with the prospect of a bruising leadership election the divisions seem to be getting wider. Working class voters in once industrial towns and cities think their political leaders are out-of-touch with no understanding of life in a country many feel is rapidly changing for the worse. The idea of the nation, particularly of a resurgent England, has become a channel […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured Uncategorized As the dust settles on the vote for Brexit, it is time to reach out to our democracy’s missing millions

    As the dust settles on the vote for Brexit, it is time to reach out to our democracy’s missing millions

    At a critical point in the development of the Labour party leadership, this article offers a few thoughts on a future Labour agenda for democratic reform that transcends internal politicking. After four years of working at Bite The Ballot, a party-neutral youth democracy movement – and one that unites decision-makers of all persuasions in its work – I can say that British politics still has a long way to go on the road to democratic renewal. Though the pieces are still […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured We must bring politics back to our communities rather than leave people to rely on Westminster “elites”

    We must bring politics back to our communities rather than leave people to rely on Westminster “elites”

    All told, it’s not been a good few months for the standing of our politicians. Whether you think there was a good case to have a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU or not, the reason we were all put through it was ultimately one of internal Conservative party management. A fundamental question about who we are as a nation and how to best represent our interests was embarked upon because David Cameron thought it was his best […]

    Read more →
  • News Kinnock: Labour must show that its socialism can “work in practice”

    Kinnock: Labour must show that its socialism can “work in practice”

    Neil Kinnock has criticised “ideological flights of fancy”, and said that Labour needs to show that socialism can “work in practice” before it can be successful. The former leader has said that winning parties have to be “professional” as well as having a “sense of belief”, and launched a strong attack on “career politicians”. “You can enchant people by ideological flights of fancy, but that’s not going to help them at all,” Lord Kinnock told BBC programme Conversations this week. He said […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured Wayne David: Top-down change no longer works – we must boost democracy from the ground up

    Wayne David: Top-down change no longer works – we must boost democracy from the ground up

    If we are serious about extending political engagement and closing the gap between people and politics, Labour needs to do two things. Firstly, we need to have a coherent and powerful narrative about bringing power closer to the people. And secondly, we need to have a series of practical proposals to make the political process more accessible and relevant to people. Even though Labour was the party which introduced devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and recently favoured “permissive” […]

    Read more →
x

LabourList Daily Email

Everything Labour. Every weekday morning

Share with your friends










Submit