Youth wages

Issue 

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Youth wages

By Nicole Berrell

As we approach another May Day, young workers in this country face a huge attack on their rights. The Liberal Party's proposed Youth Wages Bill legislates permanently lower wages for young people.

The ALP has formally opposed the bill. The Democrats have argued that the bill should not be passed until after June 22, when the Australian Industrial Relations Commission releases its report from the Junior Rates Inquiry. Resistance magazine "debates" federal employment and workplace relations minister Peter Reith on the question.

Reith: The cost of living is not as high for young people as it is for adults. You don't need as much money; you would just waste it.

Resistance: Should workers be paid according to your calculation of how much it costs each individual to live? Should single people be paid less than couples, childless couples less than those with children, people living in the western suburbs less than those in the inner city, misers less than spendthrifts? Are you offering to reduce young people's rent and how much we have to spend on food and clothing in line with our reduced wages?

Reith: Young people are unskilled; your levels of competency are low. Many of you are completely inexperienced in the work force.

Resistance: So why not provide training on the job? Don't make young people choose between living on below-poverty-line Austudy payments while they study or slave wages in apprenticeships, traineeships and work for the dole schemes.

Reith: Be realistic. Those sorts of schemes aren't economically viable. You can't have everything; you have to decide between a few people working for a lot of money, or a lot of people working for a little money.

Resistance: Why?

Reith: Well, here's the mathematics. Imagine a company employs five people under 21 at $13 an hour. If you drop the minimum rate to $7.50, the same company can employ twice as many people, or even 20 people at $3.25 an hour. This strategy will create up to 6000 jobs in the building industry alone.

Resistance: You claim junior wages save businesses $360 million, but if you were an Australian company, where would you put that extra money? Would you put it into new jobs for young people or into new technologies (which make workers redundant), overseas investments and your own pocket? In reality, the federal government has already chosen the latter options. Despite record profits in Telstra, workers have been sacked or pushed into voluntary redundancies.

Why is it, Peter Reith, that during the trial period for youth wages the jobless rate among young people rose? Is that because there really isn't a direct relationship between lowering wages and youth employment?

And isn't it true that legislating for youth wages will set the stage for reductions in all wages? That's why youth wages are a concern for all workers and the entire trade union movement.

Vox pop

Brad, 20, rigger: "Young people don't see unions working hard enough for their interests. There are very few struggles for better conditions.

"Youth wages are an obvious example. I have friends who are trainees who can barely survive on their wages, and they get all the mindless and hard work to do. I do the same work as everyone else, and I get paid a couple of hundred dollars less. Who is happy earning a fraction of what someone else earns for the same work, because of their age?"

Lucy, 21, waitress: "Sexism runs rampant in the hospitality industry. In my experience, employers behave in a way that is just not acceptable; my bosses have felt it their right to comment on my appearance and parts of my anatomy.

"Young women are less likely to stand up to this sort of abuse because they lack self-confidence and fear unemployment. And anyway, there aren't many workplaces that are safe havens against sexual discrimination. Youth wages deal women and other disadvantaged groups a double blow. I don't believe they could even remotely improve my circumstances."

Beck, 19, apprentice chef: "Every day at work I felt humiliated, abused mentally and verbally. I worked overtime and didn't get paid for it, or I worked double shifts, only to start again at 6am the next morning. I got paid $4.80 per hour, lived out of home, hardly ate, was very weak and had no self-esteem."