We reprint a leaflet produced by Radical Youth on Youth Rates. While the leaflet points to the oppression of youth implicit in youth rates, it doesn’t go beyond a reformist analysis of capitalism in Aotearoa. Low wages are not the source of exploitation, the expropriation of surplus value from wage labour by capital is. Eliminating youth rates will not end the exploitation of wage labour. Class Struggle supports Radical Youth’s call for the unionizing of youth and unity between youth and adult workers. Young people in unions must be able to caucus as youth. We work for the building of fighting, democratic unions that become ‘schools for revolution’.
Youth rates suck for young people. In New Zealand, 16-17 year olds can be legally paid $7.60 an hour ($304 for a working week, 80% of adult minimum wage) for the same work as an 18 year old. Under-16-year- olds can be paid whatever the employer decides.
Paying young people a lower wage for equal work is discrimination pure and simple. The issue of youth rates is similar to that of pay parity for women with men. In both cases, a member of a social grouping is discriminated against in the workplace because they are a member of that social grouping. Young people are paid less simply because they are not deemed ‘adults’ by the government and employers.
A 2004 income survey put the average wage for full-time 15-19 year olds at $9.50 with 20-24 year olds expected to earn $12.70. This indicates a massive pay disparity based on age, largely a result of youth rates. We do the same work in the
Youth rates contribute to New Zealand’s growing poverty
Youth rates exacerbate youth poverty and the poverty of all workers in New Zealand. A recent University of Otago study that interviewed young people revealed many youth wanted more money for their families to meet basic house expenses like rent and food bills. This is no surprise with 3 out of 10 New Zealand youth living in poverty (at a conservative estimate). The young people said youth wages were too low, especially for those who needed to earn to supplement the family income or pay for their own clothes and education. A decent wage for youth would help raise families out of poverty and the need to borrow for necessities such as food and water.
The wave of economic reform begun in the 80s has only exacerbated structural problems in the New Zealand economy, increasing the exploitation of low wage workers, of which youth form a significant component. The median annual income of young people (15-24 years) plummeted from $14,700 to $8,100 over the ten-year period between 1986 and 1996.
The result of ‘Rogernomics’ (Privatisation, union-busting, attack on wages and benefits) has been that the rich have got richer and the poor poorer. 45% of families, many with 2 adults and young people working, now rely on some kind of government assistance to reinforce low incomes. This indicates that wage levels across the board for New Zealand workers are set far too low, with yearly wage increases not even keeping pace with inflation. We are getting poorer and life is harder because they are paying us less.
Youth rates suck for all workers
The discrimination faced by youth in the workplace is a deliberate strategy of business to divide employees and drive down wages across the board. Youth rates encourage a low wage climate by setting wage standards lower than is deemed socially acceptable for adults. Employers often employ youth instead of adult workers as they are easier to boss around, have little knowledge of their rights, are not unionised and can be paid youth rates.
Youth actually lose out in this situation as well, as the children of the adult worker will be worse off due to the loss of potential income. These children will then be forced to look for work themselves to support the family. Thus patterns of exploitative youth employment and a low wage environment are perpetuated. At the 2001 Census 37% of 15 to 19 year-olds were employed as service and sales workers, a sector notorious for experimenting with new forms of low-wage and casualised labour. The youth economy is a fundamental battleground for all workers, as the shit they pull on the young today is the shit they pull on adults in the future.
What’s the alternative?
The only response to a low-wage, exploitative work environment is struggle. We must demand living wages for all workers, regardless of age. Youth rates must be abolished immediately, with minimum wage and benefits raised considerably for all New Zealanders. Let the rich foot the bill. 5% wage increases are not enough to reverse the poverty created by 15 years of the Rogernomic’s offensive. Workers are already demanding more, now we need action to translate demands into success.
The fight has two faces – against the employers and the government that protects them. Neither National or Labour have any love for the youth and workers of this country. Young people and adults can not allow themselves to be turned against each other, but must see each-other as important allies in a fight to guarantee an end to poverty and exploitation in New Zealand.
From Class Struggle 62 July-August 2005