A living wage for young people is essential to an economy that works for the many

7th November, 2017 11:30 am

Raising the minimum wage to £10 an hour was a key part of the Labour Party’s election manifesto. It is a figure that is more genuinely reflective of the living wage and there was also an indication that it would apply to all, regardless of age – an important aspect of the debate which cannot be forgotten.

The parliamentary Labour Party is generally in agreement that the living wage is fundamental to workers’ rights – a £10 an hour sum was the first policy announced by John McDonnell when he became shadow chancellor in 2015.

Although there was, and is, no indication that young people would be excluded, this is something that needs to be discussed more explicitly. Currently, we are unable to access the living wage until the age of 25. Employers and the government often justify this on the basis that 16- to 18-year-olds have less experience, fewer qualifications and are therefore worth less to a business. Not only is this a massive generalisation, it also fails to address the fundamental issue. Rather than reducing the minimum wage for young people and denying us the living wage, surely it would make more sense to pay the experienced workers more?

Labour fought the election on a platform of equal opportunities and support for all and we have a responsibility to keep up the argument in support of equal pay for young people. A minimum wage should be there to ensure that those starting from the beginning, with little or no experience, are not exploited and have enough to live on. Workers who are older and able to contribute more shouldn’t also be paid the absolute minimum.

The work by Wes Streeting and other Labour MPs to challenge Uber’s unfair treatment of their workers is testament to the fact that, with a minority government in power, we can affect change. Rather than pushing people aged 16 to 25 into poverty and exploitation, we can and should be working towards a country where everyone can access secure and well-paid work.

There is also a more dangerous argument I often hear – that young people have fewer responsibilities and therefore don’t need to be paid as much as those who are older. Historically, the gender pay gap was always justified on this basis – “men are the main breadwinners, women just supplement this so we can pay them less”. The 1970 Equal Pay Act used legislation to challenge this and the same can be done with those aged under 25.

Such gross generalisations paint a picture which may be consistent with the world that most of our Conservative ministers live in but do not reflect reality. For working-class young people, recent care leavers without family support, those who are themselves parents and for hundreds of thousands of young people, the Conservative story just doesn’t fit.

Cat Smith has correctly highlighted some of the problems in terms of living standards that so many of us face, especially private rented housing. These things are not cheaper when you are 16 as opposed to 25 – we don’t “need it less”.

But, more importantly, individual need is not how wages are determined in the current system. Workers are paid an amount relative to what they contribute, not what their employer thinks they can live on. The capitalist system requires us to be blind to individual circumstances, viewing all workers in terms of productivity – preventing young people from accessing the living wage is clearly a contradiction.

Labour manifesto was fully costed so there is a strong economic argument for giving young people the living wage and creating a uniform minimum wage. This can be seen as somewhat less important, once it’s clear that the current system is unjust and contradictory, but it does still exist.

Higher wages mean that people have money to spend, businesses thrive and more jobs are created. The majority of the firms that are exploiting young people are multinational businesses making millions in profit each year – they are not going to be forced into closure if they pay workers what they deserve. A focus on this type of progressive economics is reflective of the platform Labour should be proud to stand on.

A successful and growing economy does not have to be mutually exclusive with decent pay for young people.

There have been lots of incredibly inspiring campaigns and strikes by young workers; McDonalds and British Airways are just two examples. The role of trade unions is also paramount and GMB, Unite and others have all been doing great work.

It was fantastic to see Labour pledge a £10 per hour living wage that would extend to 16-year-olds. Workers’ rights and fair pay is clearly an issue that Jeremy Corbyn, McDonnell and Labour MPs care greatly about; the challenge is now making sure that young people remain included in the debate. As the Labour Party, we have a duty to challenge any minister or employer who says that some workers are worth less than others on the basis of age.

A living wage for all young workers is fundamental to an economy that works for the many, not the few.

Rania Ramli is a GMB activist and a member of the London Young Labour executive committee.

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