BRENDAN Barber yesterday shook the TUC to its foundations when he told Congress that this was not the time to raise the minimum wage for youth.
The TUC general secretary then went on to tell shocked delegates that he was opposed to fighting for a full minimum rate for apprentices as an ‘immediate objective’ because of the ‘present economic circumstances’.
He spoke and had his reservations on behalf of the General Council attached to a motion from the TUC Young Members’ Conference after a debate in which impassioned delegates condemned the exploitation of youth, and unpaid internships, and the low pay and abuse that young workers face every day.
The only way that the TUC President, Dougie Rooney, the Chairman, was able to get Barber’s ‘reservations’ carried was by attaching them to Motion 52 (Young People and the Recession), which Congress was absolutely determined to carry.
Motion 52 called on the TUC General Council and its affiliates to ‘work towards the equalisation of the National Minimum Wage (NMW) for all workers from the age of 16’ and to ‘build for a national demonstration against youth unemployment across the trade union movement by the end of 2010’.
It also called on the General Council to ‘campaign for apprentices to receive at least the full adult rate of the NMW from day one, unless that is superseded by a beneficial collective agreement, with at least one day a week set aside for paid training and a guaranteed job at the end of the scheme.’
John Walsh, Unite delegate and chair of TUC Young Members, moved the motion.
He said that jobs for youth ‘remain concentrated in low pay, low skill sectors’ and said: ‘Unions must speak up for the lost generation, those on the sharp end of an aggressive labour market.’
He said youth unemployment was already running at 2.5 times the average for all age groups at almost one million, while those young people in work are usually low paid and face ‘huge levels of bullying and abuses’.
‘Only one in 10 are in a trade union,’ he said. ‘Young people have no image of a trade union at all.
‘There needs to be a greater trade union presence in these areas where young workers are concentrated.’
Demanding an ‘end to exploitative internships and training’, he concluded by urging all unions to show that becoming a trade union member ‘is the best way of ensuring decency and dignity’.
Deborah Chandley, Equity and TUC Young Members committee, said: ‘We feel it is your duty to support this motion.
‘It is important to reach out to young members, help their voices to be heard.
‘Eighteen months ago I never imagined I’d be standing where I am. Support young workers and they will help your union grow stronger.’
Helen Flanagan, PCS, said young people were already being hit ‘particularly hard’ and the impact of the coalition’s cuts has already led to 180,000 fewer university places and the Connexions career service being slashed.
Now the government plans to cut benefits, she continued, urging: ‘The TUC has to take a stand.’
She welcomed a national demonstration by the TUC against youth unemployment, but said ‘it should have been called in October’.
She concluded by urging: ‘Young people deserve jobs, education and a decent, living wage. Support the motion and give young people a fighting chance.’
Patrick Dowling, from the building union UCATT, warned against a call in the motion to ‘improve conditions and opportunities for the self-employed’.
He said that ‘bogus self-employment’ was ‘like a cancer and it’s growing in our industry. We need to get it cut out.’
Conroy Lawrence, UNISON, said: ‘It’s a bleak future out there for young people.’ He said unemployment amongst 18-24 year olds was twice the national average and amongst 16 to 18 year olds it was more than four times higher.’
Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary, was the final speaker. He intervened to tell a stunned audience: ‘We’ll carry on campaigning for further movement and better rates for apprenticeships, but this issue needs to be considered against the background of economic circumstances rather than seeing this as an immediate objective.’
Barely a handful of delegates applauded his speech before the motion, with Barber’s reservations attached, was put to the vote and carried.
Moving Motion 28 and Chapter 3.8 of the General Council report, Janette Thomas called on the TUC to ‘establish a campaign to significantly increase all rates of the National Minimum Wage.’
She welcomed the introduction of a National Minimum Apprenticeship rate from October 2010, giving them ‘legal protection’ for the first time. But other speakers who followed said the new apprentice rate of only £2.50 an hour was ‘crap’.
Lorna Merry, PCS, said: ‘We share the concerns that the ConDems will seek to undermine the National Minimum Wage by stealth’ and condemned the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board.’
Jane Stewart, Unite, welcomed the national enforcement of a minimum Apprenticeship Rate in October but said: ‘Unite is disappointed to say the least, it’s only £2.50. That’s really crap. Apprentices should be paid at least the National Minimum Wage as a baseline for their work.
Motion 29 Internships was moved by a delegate from the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, Joanna Brown, who said: ‘The recesion has had a devastating impact, but no section of society has suffered more than young people.
‘For many young people, taking on an internship is the only way of getting the experience they need to get their first job.’
She warned that a culture of ‘internships’ was now spreading to high street stores and supermarkets and warned that interns could be doing ‘proper jobs that could be done by full-time workers’.
She cited the example of one young person who went on an ‘internship’ for two weeks, was then told it was being extended for another month and then another two months.
She said young people were having the ‘promise’ of a full-time jobs that fails to materialise dangled in front of them.
She also said that interns were being denied Jobseekers Allowance and that jobs were now being replaced by unpaid internships and ‘only those able to work for free can get ahead’.