What about young workers?

January 24, 2009

"Things will get worse before they get better." These were the shrewd words of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd speaking on January 20.

Invoking the "spirit of mateship", his aim was to encourage unions to refrain from seeking wage increases, and for businesses to use the windfall to retain more staff through the financial crisis — without massive lay-offs.

As with most of Labor's half-baked schemes, the proposed "wage freeze" has been met with much criticism.

Mirko Bagaric of the Sydney Morning Herald called it "Rudd's war on Middle Australia" on January 20.

However, the ACTU responded positively, stating that they would limit themselves to negotiating wage increases in line with current inflation in a bid to preserve existing jobs.

In spite of the doom and gloom of the financial crisis, some analysts are trying their best to sound confident. Theo Marinis from the Marinis Financial Group told the January 20 Courier Mail that "the only risk in a recession is if you lose your job". Just avoid this "risk", he argued, and you should be free to enjoy the positive effects of low interest rates on your mortgage.

It's good to know that optimism can still shine through, but all this talk ignores a particularly significant section of the population: young workers in casual jobs.

They bear the brunt of any economic downturn. Few of them have mortgages or credit card debts, but they do have school or university fees to pay off, living expenses that continue to rise and rely to a greater extent on social services that have become almost non-existent.

Worst of all, the majority of jobs available to them are casual and poorly paid.

If that wasn't bad enough, a recent study conducted by the Workplace Ombudsman found that of a sample of 399 businesses throughout Australia that traditionally employ young people, 41% were in breach of industrial relations practices.

These mainly related to the incorrect payment of wages and penalty rates, and mostly occurred in the retail and hospitality industries. At the conclusion of the investigation, employees were given a pittance in compensation (an estimated $360 each) while the offending companies promised to participate in education campaigns about young workers rights.

These figures point to the ongoing exploitation of young labour. Young workers are largely non-unionised and suffer from insufficient checks on the power of their boss.

They are further isolated by the casual nature of junior positions and the remnants of Howard-era Work Choices legislation, which the Labor government has failed to overturn.

Gloomy forecasts of job losses and wage stagnation only serve to highlight the instability and vulnerability of the situation faced by young people in the labour force.

Government-sponsored education campaigns get the information across, but they are not always heeded by employers concerned with the bottom line. What is necessary is a stronger push by unions to reaffirm their relevance to young people working casual jobs.

Young people need adequate representation and support. They need strong unions that can represent their interests and organise them to defend their rights, and the rights of other workers.

[Kimberly Yu is a member of the Melbourne branch of Resistance.]

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