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 Local Government Scotland Triumph in London and despair elsewhere: Corbyn looks safe for now

    Triumph in London and despair elsewhere: Corbyn looks safe for now

    Do you have a spring in your step today or simply a sprain in your ankle? After weeks of campaigning around Britain, Labour activists will this weekend slump into the bars or on to the sofa as MPs battle to put their seal on the identity of the real winners and losers from Super Thursday. Jeremy Corbyn defied expectations in English council elections but Labour suffered another dire defeat in Scotland and found its grip on power in Wales slightly […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured Jon Trickett: In Jeremy Corbyn’s first national test, we have beaten the Tories

    Jon Trickett: In Jeremy Corbyn’s first national test, we have beaten the Tories

    Back in April, I wrote on LabourList that “we should be looking for Labour to advance on the 2015 election results, where we finished almost seven per cent points behind the Conservatives.” According to the BBC’s projection, Labour has now closed that 7 point gap and achieved a one point lead across the country in yesterday’s elections. That means that in the first national test of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, we have beaten the Tories. It certainly represents progress, but it […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured Local Government Seats and Selections Uncategorized Burnham considering a run for Manchester mayor – so should he stay or go?

    Burnham considering a run for Manchester mayor – so should he stay or go?

    Andy Burnham is considering seeking the Labour nomination for the contest to be Manchester mayor, it emerged last night. The new post will be part of George Osborne’s “devolution revolution” settlement with Greater Manchester, which will see a host of powers for health, transport and planning handed to the region. Burnham is staying in the shadow Cabinet for now but, as he weighs up several approaches from local MPs, here are five reasons to stand for the mayoralty and five more […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Local Government News Scotland Wales Liveblog: Labour holds Salford mayoralty as hopes rise for Sadiq Khan

    Liveblog: Labour holds Salford mayoralty as hopes rise for Sadiq Khan

    We want to hear from Labour activists and supporters today so please send us your stories and pictures [email protected] The pick of the submissions will be added to the liveblog. 18.09: All of the constituency Assembly Members have now been elected, with Labour up one to nine AMs. They are: Jennette Arnold North East Leonie Cooper Merton & Wandsworth Unmesh Desai City & East Andrew Dismore Barnet & Camden Len Duvall Greenwich & Lewisham Florence Eshalomi Lambeth & Southwark Joanne […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Local Government News Corbyn: We are fighting inequality and forcing the Tories into u-turns

    Corbyn: We are fighting inequality and forcing the Tories into u-turns

    Jeremy Corbyn and his senior allies have launched a fightback after Labour failed to make a breakthrough in English local elections and suffered another meltdown in Scotland. Corbyn delivered an impassioned speech in Sheffield, where he attacked the Tories over their failure to deal with the steel crisis, condemned the running down of the NHS and challenged David Cameron to tackle tax avoidance. The Labour leader was in Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough to congratulate Gill Furniss (above), one of two new Labour […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends










Submit