The young and the restless: Youth unemployment hits record high

As Labor Treasurer Wayne Swan continues to preach about a strong Australian economy underlined by a surge in job creation, youth unemployment figures continue to rise to record heights, reflecting a disturbing global trend.

According to the August 12 Sydney Morning Herald, in 2009, global youth unemployment grew at a rate twice that of adults, affecting 13% of 15 to 24-year-olds. Australia was not exempt from the alarming trends.

In Adelaide, 27.4% of people aged 15 to 19 are out of work, according to the state Department of Further Education, Employment, Science and Technology.

These alarming figures highlight the issue of age discrimination. Capitalism, a system dedicated to the pursuit of profits for a tiny minority, encourages the exploitation of young people. For example, the concept of “youth wages” allows bosses to get away with paying 15-year-olds less than half the adult wage to perform the same task.

Governments talk about cracking down on crime and getting young people off the streets, but allowing more of us to enter the workforce in rewarding, useful jobs, and paying us decent wages — as well as increasing funding to and quality of public education and training — would go a long way to addressing the sense of powerlessness, boredom and alienation felt by many young people who can’t find work.

But try telling that to a capitalist.

Adelaide’s Young Workers Legal Service (YWLS), a free service relying on volunteer law students, has identified a number of factors discouraging young people from entering the workforce. Low youth wages was just one on them.

The YWLS 2009 annual report said the service had experienced a drastic increase in young workers coming forward in search of legal advice against employers. Almost 700 young workers approached the service for help during the 2008/09 period.

Of these 700 people, 40% were 18 to 21-year-olds, 59.5% were from Adelaide’s traditionally lower socio-economic northern and southern suburbs, and 54.3% sought unfair dismissal or underpayment advice. The retail industry was the source of most complaints.

Employers are increasingly using “apprenticeships” and “trainee programs” as an excuse to underpay young workers, without the employee receiving any training or moving any closer to a qualification.

In June, Australia’s minimum wage was increased to $15 an hour, but even that was a stretch for the bosses. ABC Online said on June 3: “Employer groups had argued that level of increase was unaffordable.”

The levels of exploitation and underpayment serve as a disincentive to work, but unemployment poses its own dangers. The September 14 Age said recent research suggested serious mental and physical health risks stemmed from long-term unemployment.

The international study, conducted over 20 years, found the health effects of long-term unemployment were akin to smoking 10 packets of cigarettes a day, the Age said. “Young men were at particular risk”, it said, “with suicide rates 40 times higher than usual for those out of work for more than six months.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Young workers in Australia should take heart from the youth rights movement in New Zealand.

A few years ago, the Unite union organised the young workers of fast-food chains in New Zealand into a massive movement against poverty-level wages, workplace discrimination, and for a general overhaul of the corrupt casual work system.

The success of the Super-Size My Pay campaign should be a message to the underpaid, underrepresented and exploited youth of Australia: united, we are a force that can win improvements to pay and working conditions.

United with other trade unionists struggling to defend and extend their rights at work, we can be a force even the Wayne Swans of the world will have to listen to.