Shiv Malik is the co-author of the book Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth. He comments on unpaid interns and unenforced minimum wage legislation.
Shiv Malik is the co-author of the book Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth.
Long since dark, with temperatures dropping below zero, a small rump of three hundred school pupils and students remained in Trafalgar square last Tuesday, the protest that was DayX2. A standoff with the police ensued and cops tried to push protesters off the broad plinth of Nelson’s column and away from the area altogether. Suddenly a different chant went up – one as yet unheard through five hours of cat and mouse through the city, or even in the seven hours in the Whitehall kettle the week before. The cry was plain, clear and deadly serious: “We want jobs. We want jobs.”
Whatever its merits, it is easy enough for a government to deploy an argument against students who want to fight against increased charges to tuition fees. They retort that university is after all a choice; you don’t have to take on the debt if you don’t want to. However it is much harder to justify a policy of austerity that has cut a future of work from underneath the feet of Britain’s youth.
As my co-author Ed Howker, and I explain in our book, Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth, the dire state of youth unemployment has been long in the making. Numbers on NEETS – those not in education, employment or training – were rising since well before the down turn, most dramatically amongst those aged 16-17. During the height of the boom years the ILO measure for unemployment amongst this group peaked at 29%. For those ages 18-24 unemployment hit 12% in 2006. Now, there are currently 1.5 million unemployed under 35’s out of a total of around 2.5 million and this is expected to rise with every school year that graduates into the worst jobs market in decades.
One of the consequences of this surplus of youth labour is that young people have never been so eager and willing to do anything to get a job including working for free as unpaid interns for months on end without pay in the hope that they might get a job at the end of it. As a recent BBC5live investigation found, this practise of hiring free labour isn’t restricted to private sector firms. Public sector bodies like the NHS and the Home Office are even getting in on the act. One intern who was recruited to work for five months with a Primary Care Trust even helped train managers with staff appraisals – all without being paid a penny for her efforts.
Of course, most of this might be illegal under national minimum wage legislation – those who do anything that resembles work should be paid the minimum wage. But instead of stepping in to enforce the law, the last Labour Government in a report entitled “Unleashing Aspiration” suggested that in the interests of fair access, graduates and school leavers should have graduate loans extended so they could more easily meet the cost of supplying their labour for free. Most troubling of all, even for those that are in paid work, the situation is still grim. From a historical perspective those aged under-30 have lost huge ground in terms of pay and conditions over the last few decades when compared to an older cohort. One example that we highlight in our book is that whilst pay has increased by some 40% for those aged 45 to 55 during the eight years from 1999-2008, those aged 20-30 have only witnessed a 30% increase. Taking the disparity in starting salaries into account, the rise in pay for those on entry wages barely covers the cost of inflation over the period for younger workers.
If you take a further step back and look at the picture of all workers in the UK a shocking trend begins to emerge. Political parties of all stripes profess to want “work” to pay. In this time of public deficit, there is also an impetus to reduce the welfare bill; politicians want people in work, and not dependent on handouts. But as the Independent on Sunday reveals 2.1 million working families are now in poverty even though both parents work.
The rise of those who work and yet still find themselves in poverty has been getting steadily worse since the 1970’s. This graph is a breakdown of national wealth in to its two main parts; wages and corporate profits. As you can see, workers have been getting less and less a share of GDP since 1976. Meanwhile the slice of GDP going towards shares and corporate profits has been increasing ever since.
In fact if workers today were getting paid the same today (as a percentage of the GDP pie) as they were from 1950-1980, every one of Britain’s 29.5 million workers would get £2,000 more every year. If that money – 4% extra of GDP- was divided out to those 10 million workers paid less than the average wage, each one would get an average of £5,000 a year pro rata. Even more interestingly, taken from the perspective of total money available in the pot, people who worked were better remunerated under the Thatcher years than they were under New Labour. This perhaps explains why we have seen a massive rise in inequality over the last two decades.
Parties of both left and right have utterly failed to correct this trend. And as we note in our book, Gordon Brown revealed why this was so just before the General election. In a Newsnight interview Jeremy Paxman asked Brown why he didn’t simply raise the minimum wage to halt growing inequality. His reply came in a burst of frustration. “Look, it’s impossible, it’s impossible in a global labour market to control the salaries of people, and it’s not the right thing to do. See, I can’t say that someone should be paid “X” in the United Kingdom, if someone can be paid “Y” for the same job in America or elsewhere”.
Figuring out how to make work pay in a globalised economy will be one of the central challenges of our generation. It will be the key to a fair and just economy and one that can sustain itself in the long run both in terms of resources and moral legitimacy. But in the meantime we know that young people – whether they’re students or in work – don’t have a lot of money. So we have decided to give away our book for free. It is available via all smart phone (excluding iPhones – and yes we know that’s a problem but we’re working on it). All you have to do is text “Jilted” to 60300. Happy reading!Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.