by Denise Roche
There’s an hilarious take on the old Monty Python skit about the Romans called ‘What have the unions ever done for us?’ It lists some of the many things that workers and their unions have fought for and won – including weekends off, paid annual leave, sick leave, health and safety laws, paid parental leave, and the abolition of child labour.
On Monday, it is Labour Day, and workers have a paid day off to celebrate those wins in whatever way they wish. But what about our young people?
New Zealand has often led the world in the struggle for workers’ rights, for human rights. How ironic, then, that on the eve of Labour Day we should be battling yet another attack on young workers.
Yesterday, the Government’s youth rates bill passed its first reading in Parliament. It sets a minimum wage of $10.80 an hour for 16 and 17-year-olds during the first six months of a new job, a rate that is 80 per cent of the $13.50 adult minimum. It allows employers to pay 18 to 19 year olds entering the workforce after spending more than six months on a benefit significantly less than the minimum wage.
As Council of Trade Unions youth spokesperson James Sleep has stated, this Bill will not address the very high levels of youth unemployment in New Zealand. Young people aged 15-24 comprise 41% of total unemployment in Aotearoa New Zealand. One in four young Maori aged 18-24 are unemployed, and almost 30% of Pasifika youth. This Bill won’t create more jobs. But it will push some young people into poverty, and it will price younger and older workers out of the job market.
This Bill discriminates against young workers not only on the basis of their age, but also their employment status. Those 18 and 19 year olds who have not been on a benefit face missing out on jobs, and those who have been on a benefit face missing out on pay. That’s why the Greens have lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.
At a time when the need for a Living Wage has never been more evident, when inequality is higher in New Zealand than it has ever been, we should not be expecting our young people to live on $10.80 an hour. We should not be rolling back the human right to receive equal pay for work of equal value. Sounds suspiciously like a step back towards child labour to me.
We need to invest in our young people, not discriminate against them. Then perhaps they’ll have as much reason as the rest of us to celebrate on Labour Day.