Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Emily Starrett-Wright: Why youth rates are unfair

Interest in the campaign to increase minimum pay to $12 an hour and abolish youth rates has been high, not just among voters and politicians, but also among members of that most politically apathetic of generations.

Currently in our teens, we are seemingly concerned only with iPods and the opposite sex, and have the attention span of a music video.

We may have a sketchy notion of US foreign policy, but couldn't care less about our own. And yet many of us have attended an organised protest for the first time in our lives.

It is likely many of the young people who turned out were thinking only of the extra cash that fair pay would give them, a political awakening sparked by and concerned only with self-interest.

It may not be much of an awakening, but it has created dissatisfaction with our current pay rate, which is pitifully low.

It may be fitting that self-interest is the only force powerful enough to get the youth of today politically active, but before we are judged for our selfish motives, consider the conditions we want to change.

Youth rates are a system designed to legally pay some of the most vulnerable members of the workforce only 80 per cent of the pay their adult colleagues receive.

This in no way reflects the amount of work youth do. I worked in a supermarket for a year and never once was I told to relax for the 20 per cent of the time I did not get paid because I was under 18.

In fact, under 18-year-olds probably work harder and do grottier jobs than their adult counterparts, because they are inexperienced at sticking up for themselves, and there are always other school kids for whom $7.60 an hour seems a fortune.

That's before tax. After tax, this works out closer to $6 an hour.

It doesn't seem a fortune for long, when you realise you may end up working a ratio of a minute-and-a-half of stacking shelves for a minute of movie time. Or five minutes' work for one minute of CD music.

To make things even harder to afford, many companies start charging adult prices from the age of around 14, although adult wages won't be paid for another four years. At the age of 14, it is up to the employer how much you get paid. This is, quite simply, unfair. Wage discrimination based on age is a breach of human rights.

While it is true that many teens are financially supported by their parents, it is also true that for many others working is a necessity.

A school friend pays for half the cost of her school uniform, her clothes and school camps, all on youth rates. Many teens support themselves because of family circumstances they can't control, and it seems fair they should be paid a wage substantial enough to do so.

Those who work just for extra money for themselves are no less deserving of a fair wage. Teens motivated enough to get themselves a job and save for that car or trip overseas (or the ridiculously hedonistic goal of going to university) should not be slaving away for a pittance.

Teens, as the group with the highest disposable income, are targeted in advertising constantly and cleverly, and often the pressure to spend exceeds the amount one earns.

The companies that target teens - and that's most of them, including the sellers of alcohol - should be supporting the abolition of youth rates, if only in their own self-interest.

Equal work for equal pay (and pay that makes working worthwhile) is a basic right that we should be taking for granted, not fighting for.

New Zealand is one of the few countries that pays youth rates. To preserve our reputation as a fair country, teenage workers should immediately be given the "fair deal" that we like to believe is one of our central values. And if that happens, maybe today's teenagers will realise it can be possible - and even cool - to change things.

* Emily Starrett-Wright is aged 17.

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