Unions call for end to variable minimum wage

People’s wages should depend on the job they are doing rather than how old they are, trade unions told the Low Pay Commission this week.

The commission is reviewing the national minimum rate for 16- and 17-year-olds, brought in at £3 an hour, to see what affect it has had on young workers’ employment and education prospects.

The commission will also have to make recommendations for all elements of the National Minimum Wage (NMW), including the youth rate, for it’s next scheduled change in October 2006.

TUC deputy general secretary Frances O’Grady told the commission that the unions felt strongly that employers should pay the ‘rate for the job’. While recognising that it might be too much to bring 16- and 17-year-olds up to the full adult rate in one go, the TUC does want to see the gap seriously narrowed, she said.

Public sector union Unison’s evidence to the commission focused on the exemption of training schemes, such as modern apprenticeships, from the NMW. The union’s evidence showed that the expemption can often lead to abuse of young workers. It included examples of apprentices working longer than adults in full-time jobs – with full adult responsibilities – being paid the equivalent of £2.75 an hour.

“Low pay in childcare, combined with the exploitation of modern apprentices, leads to high turnover and low qualifications,” said O’Grady. “This is a barrier to government efforts to bring more women into the labour force.”

Without a set minimum wage, she added, employers were free to pay young women apprentices less than young men.

“This is not a good way for our young people to start their working lives,” she said.

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