For the past eight months, I worked at a well-known retail chain for a fraction of the cost of other employees. I am 16-years-old and was being paid “youth wages”.
I resigned at the end of February, even though I enjoyed working there. I was receiving second-class wages for the same work as older workers with the same position.
When I originally applied for the job in June last year, I was told that my pay would be scaled down a certain percentage for every year under 21 years of age I was.
A teacher at school said this was based on the idea that young people don't have the ability to do a job to the same standard as older people. Every person I asked about youth wages gave the same explanation, but they all conceded in the end that it didn't make sense. Because it doesn't.
Scaled-down youth wages are based on a series of assumptions — namely that performing basic tasks such as greeting customers, cash handling, and putting items on shelves, was best done by adults and therefore young people should be paid less.
In an industry which requires constant movement and heavy lifting, logic dictates that able-bodied young people could technically, in fact, do the job better. In my job, all new employees were trained to do the same tasks and develop the same skills.
Despite receiving praise for my work in contrast to older workers who were regularly reprimanded, it was frustrating that they were paid more, and no effort on my part would win me equal wages.
Yet many people seem to accept that youth wages are something we just have to live with.
Socialist Alliance activist Rachel Evans says so-called youth wages are part of the exploitation of young people in the retail and fast-food industries in particular. Businesses have a vested interest in maintaining youth wages. Whenever they manage to pay less in wages, their profit margins go up.
Lee Carnie from the Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law published research in 2012 that questioned the common assumptions behind youth wages. The study, “Towards fairness and equality for young workers: youth wages and minimum shift lengths”, addressed three “fundamental assumptions” used to justify an unequal and unfair wage for young people.
The first assumption is that paying young workers the same wage as adult workers would overvalue their work, and thus reduce youth employment.
However, evidence from New Zealand, which abolished youth wages in 2006 and reinstated them last year, has shown that getting rid of youth wages “did not have any direct behaviour effects on minimum wages, and did not reduce low-wage employment”, the study said.
In fact, New Zealand academics Dean Hyslop and Steven Stillman said in 2004 that there were “significant increases in labour earnings and total income of teenagers relative to young adults” following the abolition of youth wages.
The second assumption is that youth workers do not need as much money as adult workers. This assumption is based on the stereotype of middle-class teenagers who are supported by their parents and work for “pocket money”.
These people do exist, but to base wage rates on this stereotype tends to ignore those young people from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds who need to work to support their families.
The study said about 10% of working high school students work because of financial necessity to support their families or their study. The paper also found that there was a link between a low socioeconomic background and leaving school early in search of employment, which further challenges this judgmental and stereotyped view of young workers and their needs.
The third of these assumptions is that young workers' work is less valuable to employers. It is based on the 'Less Pay for Less Value' argument.
The Australian government said in 2011: “If junior employees are to be competitive in the labour market, their minimum wages must reflect that on average, they have lower skills and experience, including general life experience, than adults and are therefore of less value to employers.”
Yet most young people pursue work in jobs which, with sufficient training, can be done by anyone, and there is no evidence to suggest that age plays a role in their ability to do their jobs.
Young workers are valuable to the workforce, and the retail and fast-food industries in particular should reflect that by treating young people as equal to adults.
After all, employers don't seem to discriminate against young people with the amount of work they give them, so why do they think it's acceptable to discriminate when paying them what they've rightfully earned?
It is time to stop justifying unfair discrimination and the exploitation of young people in the Australian workforce, and instead support the abolition of youth wages. Young people deserve better than “youth wages” and need a union that can fight back against attacks on their rights and conditions.