Young workers need a pay rise

By Tom Vrijens, President of ETUC Youth Committee

Young workers need a pay rise.

Of course, all workers deserve a pay rise, but young workers suffer specific difficulties that put them in even more need of a pay rise.

The most obvious abuse is suffered by interns (trainees): young people who are too often used as cheap or even unpaid labour. Across Europe only 1 in 5 interns are paid enough to cover living costs! Over half of all interns are not paid at all.

This is totally unacceptable. It is not just a question of getting a pay rise: it is about getting paid at all! We are not talking here about traineeships carried out as part of an education or training course, but the increasing prevalent ‘work experience’ traineeships that are often a cheap substitute for a real job.

Perhaps the worst case is in Croatia where the Government introduced a year-long placement scheme to help graduates find work. Because of a recruitment ban state institutions took advantage and the ratio of trainees to civil servants became so high that a 10% cap was introduced! Not surprisingly, given the lack of employment opportunities after the cheap placement, Croatian trade unions are running a campaign “I am worth more”.

It’s not a small problem – almost half of all young Europeans have done at least one internship, and the figure is even higher for graduates. It’s time to end the abuse.

The same applies to apprentices – all apprenticeships should be paid. A positive example is Luxembourg where apprentices’ pay is fixed according to the type of qualification, year of study, success in assessment and the sector. .

And that leads to another issue – young people paid below the national minimum wage. In the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and Greece, young people have a minimum wage lower than the ‘adult’ minimum wage. In my own country Belgium trade unions and employers agreed to abolish the notorious youth wages. The Belgian Government proposed a law to reintroduce such wages to fight youth unemployment but this would mean lowering the wages of all young workers (under 21) even those whose wages are set by collective bargaining! . This is discrimination: it is wrong and needs to stop. If a young person is doing the same job as an older person they should be paid the same wage.

Equal pay is a basic principle which has to be applied to workers regardless of age.

In the Netherlands trade unions ran a successful campaign which resulted in raising (but not abolishing) the young person’s minimum wage. Reducing the gap between the young and the ‘adult’ minimum wage was a first positive step.

The pay gap between young and older workers is a broader issue. It is understandable that older and more experienced workers tend, on average, to earn more: that’s career progression. What is worrying is the fact that the pay gap is getting wider – and young people are losing out. In 16 EU countries, the pay gap between workers under 30 and all workers widened by more than 2 percentage points between 2006 and 2014. In 2006 Belgium workers under 30 earned 79% of the average wage of all workers. In 2014 the percentage had fallen to 75%. Isn’t it time to reconsider this youth pay gap next to the gender pay gap?

What’s the reason? There are probably several – from the cynical exploitation of young people desperate to find work, to the huge increase in part-time and temporary employment of young people. In 2015 7 out of 10 young workers in Spain were on a fixed-term contract, and more than 8 out of 10 of those were unable to find a full-time job. In Germany, Italy, Ireland and elsewhere precarious employment is very widespread not only in the sectors already known for precarious work –  like cleaning and security – but also in the creative sectors, freelance, and higher education.

Through trade union organisation, and legislation where necessary, we should move towards better pay for part-time and temporary work, and ensure jobs are part-time or temporary only where absolutely necessary or when people want to work part-time or temporary. Better pay is not just about wages but also social security and pension contributions: making it possible for young people to start to live independently.

What’s clear is that young workers need a pay rise, and that with more money in their pockets they will buy goods and services that will create business and jobs. Young people need a pay rise, and so does the economy!