Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to include under 18s in Labour’s £10 an hour minimum wage is to be welcomed. As the Labour leader made clear “Equal pay for equal work” is hardly a controversial idea. Under Labour, the hourly pay of workers aged 16 and 17 would more than double. At present, workers under the age of 18 are entitled to a minimum wage of £4.35 an hour, compared to £8.21 for those over 25.
Hardly surprisingly, business leaders have reacted negatively, claiming that it would increase youth unemployment – currently at an all time low. Yet there’s no conclusive evidence that the introduction of a minimum wage has affected the UK’s labour market. On the contrary it’s improved the relative position of those who experience low pay – even if significant numbers of employers manage to avoid paying what they are statutory required to.
But 16-17-year olds have long since been driven out of the labour market anyway – with latest ONS statistics showing just over 80,000 in full time work compared with the 1.2 million plus who remain in full-time learning. Because of declining employment opportunities and changes in benefit eligibility, (Job Seekers Allowance is not available to anybody under 18), young people now tend to pile up educational credentials to try and enter the labour market much later. The requirement to stay in education or training until 18 is a reflection, not the cause of this.
It’s true that about 20% of 16-17 -year olds work part-time while they study, down from over 40% in 2000, showing the demise of the ‘Saturday job’ — though neither of these figures take account of those working ‘unofficially’. Under Labour’s proposals they’d become significantly better off. In addition to scrapping fees for higher education and FE, Labour has also committed itself to restoring Educational maintenance Allowances – under the previous system abolished by the Tories thousands of 16-17-year olds benefitted by around £30 a week. It also wants better apprenticeship opportunities.
Yet with most 16-17-year olds neither working or qualifying for EMA, would Labour not be better off putting a ‘basic income’ in some form or other, at the centre of a real new deal for young people?