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).