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).

  • http://twitter.com/JoshuaTLindsey Joshua Lindsey

    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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fflyff.mclaren Fflyff McLaren

    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 Forget left or right, it’s national identity Labour just doesn’t get

    Forget left or right, it’s national identity Labour just doesn’t get

    Patriotism and the left are uneasy bedfellows. For the party of devolution, it seems odd that this should be the case. Yet, if Labour’s bungled response to the rise of UKIP and Scottish nationalism betrays anything, it’s the Westminster prejudice that questions of national identity need be placated with legislation alone. Labour’s routing in Scotland was never retribution for Gordon Brown’s brave defence of both his Scottish and British identities. But it almost certainly was a comprehensive two fingers to […]

    Read more →
  • Comment The Government isn’t taking EU refugee crisis seriously

    The Government isn’t taking EU refugee crisis seriously

    The EU has a refugee crisis that is only growing. Germany estimates it may receive 800,000 by the end of the year. Hungary had 3,000 refugees enter its border a few days ago. This is more than half the number it received for all of 2013. Syria, Afghanistan, Libya. These war-torn countries are often where these refugees have fled looking for a better life. These people may enter Europe with little money, but they are the ones with the means […]

    Read more →
  • News Britain must play its part in dealing with the refugee crisis, says Yvette Cooper

    Britain must play its part in dealing with the refugee crisis, says Yvette Cooper

    Yvette Cooper will today say that Britain must play its part in the dealing with the refugee crisis across Europe.   In a speech today the Labour leadership contender will argue for Britain to be involved in more search and rescue operations, tackling trafficking and supporting refugees. “This has become a humanitarian crisis on a scale we have not seen on our continent since the Second World War. Yet we seem paralysed to respond”, she will say. Cooper will argue that […]

    Read more →
  • News “I will win the 2020 general election”, says Burnham

    “I will win the 2020 general election”, says Burnham

    Andy Burnham has made a commitment to win the next election, in a bid to convince those wavering between voting for him and Jeremy Corbyn. The leadership contender has also this morning hit out at David Cameron over the Tories’ claims to be introducing a living wage, and said that he will fight for a “true living wage” of £11 an hour. In a piece for today’s Independent, Burnham writes that he believes the leadership contest is now a “straight choice” […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured We’re strangling our Party with structures, processes and bureaucracy

    We’re strangling our Party with structures, processes and bureaucracy

    During this leadership campaign I have been clear that the Labour Party needs to change – but that’s not just about politics or policy, it’s about how our party is organised and run too. There are many things right with our Party. At our best we are a vibrant movement full of passionate, engaged people determined to change our country for the better. Yet too often we insist on strangling our Party with structures, processes and bureaucracy. I’ve lost count of the times members have told me that their local meetings seem to care more about changing […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends










Submit