School leavers are being paid as little as £1 an hour for certain jobs because they are excluded from the minimum wage.
Research analysis published this week by the pressure group the Low Pay Network shows 16-year-olds employed as hairdressers earned £1.53 per hour on average, with 17-year-olds in the same job earning £1.60.
Some employers in the hairdressing and retail sectors were found to be offering jobs to 16- and 17-year-olds for rates as low as £1 per hour.
The research was based on data from careers services across the country and was commissioned by the Low Pay Commission to gauge the impact of the minimum wage for the Government.
It comes as the Government promoted the increased national minimum wage youth rate to £3.20, which came into force last week for 18- to 21-year-olds. It says 150,000 young workers will benefit from this 20p increase.
The research points out that under wages councils young people used to receive minimum wage protection, which would have meant hairdressers aged 16 would have been paid £2.04 an hour in April 1999 if their old minimum wage was adjusted according to inflation.
But despite inequalities across some sectors the average hourly rate for 16-year-olds is £2.36. For 17-year-olds the average is £2.50.
The report argues it would be feasible to set a minimum wage for 16- and 17-year-olds at a proportion of the £3.20 rate to protect young people from exploitation.
But Martin Couchman of the British Hospitality Association said introducing a minimum wage for people aged 16 to 17 could stop employers offering jobs to school leavers.
He said, "If the wage was set at around £3 per hour that would mean many industries would not offer young people any employment.
"In hairdressing, young people are often paid in tips - which are obviously paid in cash by the customer and are not accounted for by the minimum wage. This is also an issue in the hotel and restaurant industry."
• The report The National Minimum Wage: Impact of Young People is available from the Greater Manchester Low Pay Unit, 0161-953 4078, or from regional low pay units, priced £8.