How do you solve a problem like Cait?

February 13, 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 Going for the student vote: Postgraduates matter more

    Going for the student vote: Postgraduates matter more

    In a politics dominated by efforts to chase the grey vote it is nice to see a bit of electoral competition at the other end of the generational divide. As Labour weighs up what to do about tuition fees it might seem that a big offer to students could yield important gains next year at the general election, as well as shoring up any post-2010 support tempted to return to the Lib Dem fold. 40.5% of students voted Lib Dem […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Independence won’t deliver for Scottish women

    Independence won’t deliver for Scottish women

    As the referendum debate in Scotland picks up pace, there is an increased focus on how women will vote. So far, it would seem that women in Scotland are steadfastly resisting Salmond’s overtures. It’s no surprise, given that his central offer for more childcare has been dismissed by the experts, and women are starting to understand that the SNP are being led by polls and not principles. Women are asking why, if the SNP’s commitment to equal representation is real, […]

    Read more →
  • News Weekly survey: Cost of living, elections and devolution

    Weekly survey: Cost of living, elections and devolution

    Average wages are set to rise faster than prices – so is there still a cost of living crisis? Ed Balls says there is, the Tories are arguing that there isn’t. What do you think? And with the European and local elections coming up next month – how much campaigning is going on in your area? And when were you last out on the doorstep? Also in our survey – Ed Miliband has pledged to devolve at least £20 billion to be […]

    Read more →
  • News Labour have a mini reshuffle

    Labour have a mini reshuffle

    Labour have had a very mini pre-Easter reshuffle, with two new role announced. Thomas Docherty, formerly Angela Eagle’s PPS, has become Shadow Deputy Leader of the House, while Angela Smith moves from that position to become a Shadow Environment minister. Congratulations to both on their new roles.

    Read more →
  • News Tory housing shambles: Over budget and behind schedule

    Tory housing shambles: Over budget and behind schedule

    It’s no secret that Britain faces a housing crisis – and new figures show David Cameron’s big plan to “Get Britain Building” is turning out to be an abject failure. The Get Britain Building fund was launched in November 2011 by then-Housing Minister Grant Shapps, who announced £400 million to build 16,000 homes over the next three years. Cameron then relaunched the project in March 2012, with the cost soaring to £570 million and the deadline extended to March 2015. […]

    Read more →