On the fight for fair pay for young workers

In this piece, Charlotte Nichols sets out the argument for fair pay for young workers and argues that unionisation is the only way that it can be achieved.

In our annual reminder of just how little the government values the labour of young workers, the new National Minimum Wage rates were announced this week. These new rates will take effect from October 2016.

Paying the National Minimum Wage is, in effect, a way for your employer to tell you “I would pay you less if I could, but it is illegal”. That doesn’t diminish the good that Labour did in introducing the NMW. In fact having that floor for wages has disproportionately benefited young workers, and particularly young women, BAME and disabled workers who are much more likely to be paid at or near the minimum wage. That said, that there are different floors for young workers (with a further tier to be introduced from April with George Osborne’s “National Living Wage” for over-25s) effectively entrenches age discrimination, for that is exactly what paying younger workers less for the same work than their older colleagues is.

Much of this discrimination is predicated on the idea that wages for young workers are merely “pocket money”, a view that does not take into account the lived experience of so many- both within the Labour movement and outside.

Many young members do not have families they can rely on to help them out financially, either because their family cannot afford to do so, or because of the nature of their domestic situation (independent adults, care leavers, people who have had to leave home because they are LGBT or to flee domestic violence, and young adults who have been bereaved to name just a few examples).

My rent is not any cheaper because I am 24. The supermarket doesn’t charge you less for your shopping if you’re 19 than if you’re 29. Utility companies don’t rip you off less because you’re 21. Having children doesn’t cost less because you became a mum at 23. Your work is not worth less than your colleague who the government says is worth £7.20 to your £6.95 because they were born a few months before you.

This devaluing of the work young people do goes hand-in-hand with an explosion in unpaid internships and bogus apprenticeships since the recession, not to mention zero hours contracts that over a third of workers aged 16-24 are now on. How can we expect employers to think our work is of equal value if our government doesn’t?

Our demand for fair pay should look like this: the National Living Wage to be increased to align with independently established voluntary Living Wage rates, and to be effective from the age of 18 alongside an increase in the under-18 rate. If you’re considered an adult under the law, you should receive an adult wage.

Fair pay for young workers is something the trade unions have been pushing for years. Trade union members aged 16-24 receive, on average, 38% higher wages than their non-unionised counterparts. Unions have also negotiated away ‘youth rates’ in hundreds of agreements across the economy. It’s clear that the next stage of this fight- fair pay for all young workers, enshrined in law- will be fought by young trade unionists with Young Labour standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them. If you’re not a member of a union yet, what are you waiting for? Let’s fight this together, and let’s win.

Charlotte Nichols
Charlotte Nichols

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