Last week, with tens of thousands of others, I joined the TUC’s Britain needs a pay rise march. As a Labour movement, we rightfully spend a lot of our time discussing how we can both lift people out of poverty, and give workers a good standard of living by increasing wages. Whether you favour raising the minimum wage, or legislating to move towards a living wage – everyone in our party is in agreement that the minimum wage of £6.50 an hour is not enough to live on.
But there’s a section of the population that we too often leave out of this conversation; the millions of workers aged 16 to 21. Whether you work full or part time, you are not entitled to the minimum wage of £6.50 until you become twenty one years of age. Until then, young workers aged 18-20 have to get by on £5.13 an hour, under 18 year olds with £3.79 and apprentices with a measly £2.73. We all agree that getting by on £6.50 an hour is a daily struggle, so how are those on even lower wages under 21 supposed to meet the cost of living?
In the vast majority of these cases, young workers are doing exactly the same work as older workers. A 16 year old cashier gets half the wage of someone ten years older at the cash desk next to them, but they have exactly the same items per minute target (yes, that is a thing.). In the same way that we as a Labour movement campaign for equal pay for equal work regardless of sex, we have to start speaking up for the millions of young people being short changed by their employers because the law makes a baseless distinction on the grounds of age.
Low pay is just one of many ways by which young workers are exploited; polls find under 21s not as well trained on health and safety issues and more likely to be trapped in zero hour contracts. The gender pay gap for 16-17 year olds is the second highest of all age groups. Many employers give 3hr 45m shifts to young workers, in an attempt to avoid having to give the paid breaks legally required once you’ve clocked up four hours work. Imagine paying a return tube fare and then working a 3hr 45m shift; half your pay is gone already.
We frequently talk about the need for Labour to reach out and engage young people at the next election, and one obvious way to do that is by pledging to equalise the minimum wage. In the long term, we need to tackle the the deep rooted exploitation of young workers by teaching children about the role of trade unions in citizenship education and encouraging more young workers to join a union.
But in the short term, let’s show we value young people equally to adults, and promise to legislate to ensure that age discrimination can no longer determine wages. Whether you’re working full time after leaving school, or have a part time Saturday job whilst studying, an equal minimum wage will instantly give a tangible benefit to millions of young people, and Ed Miliband should commit to it now.
Helena Dollimore, Vice Chair Policy, Young Labour