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Minimum wage: a matter of age?

Today, the national minimum wage for workers over the age of 21 rose by 11p, to £6.19 an hour: a rise of 1.8%. To put that into perspective, the cost of living rose by 3.6% in 2011, according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Younger workers, however, have it even worse. 16 and 17 year olds will see no increase in their meagre wage of £3.68 an hour while 18 to 20 year olds will still be paid only £4.98 per 60 minutes of unrewarding toil.

For almost a year I have been working part time at a hotel restaurant on the minimum wage for under 18s. Fortunately for me, I don’t depend on this to get by. As a sixth-form student living with my parents, I am not plagued with bread-and-butter issues such as paying bills or putting food on the table. Not all young workers are in this position.

Thanks to abominable tuition fees along with the many other delights of the Gove revolution, it is no surprise that people as young as 16 will choose work over further education. Some will have no option but to take low paid jobs and attempt to live off them.

In many cases, these wages are simply inadequate. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a single person needs £193 each week (excluding rent) to reach a minimum standard of living. Someone aged between 18 and 20 working for 35 hours a week earns just over £174 a week in total. You don’t need to be a mathematician to calculate that young workers living alone struggle to reach a sufficient standard of living.

With these grim figures, it is no surprise that, young or old, the majority of people in poverty have a job. This evidently means that minimum wage recipients need their pay topped up with working tax credits in order to get by. Essentially, supermarkets, hotels and other big businesses are getting an absolute bargain for the labour they rely on – at the expense of the state.

Of course it was a Labour government that introduced the minimum wage, and that was undoubtedly a great achievement. Indeed, the Tories voted against legislation for it in 1988. However, New Labour did not go far enough. The National Minimum wage is insufficient and as long as tiny pay packets are being topped up by the government, big companies get away with exploitation. Yet again, young people are paying a huge price for the out of touch policies of this Tory-led government.

Ed Miliband has made welcome overtures to “predistribution”. But Labour must show that it is serious about this concept, and put an end not only to poverty wages, but to age discrimination.

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