THE BLOG

A New Workforce of the Lowest Paid

09/10/2014 16:45 BST | Updated 09/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Did anyone spot the commitment in both the main parties' conference speeches to create a new workforce of thousands of young people - millions even - paid just £2.73 an hour?

Actually the initiative wasn't just spotted but welcomed, alongside promises on zero hours contracts and the National Minimum Wage.

We know that there are employers ready to exploit young people, even when it is illegal. According to a ComRes poll of 859 people not in employment, education or training (NEETS) commissioned by Young Women's Trust for our report, Totally Wasted? The Crisis of Young Women's Worklessness, one in one in five women NEETs has been offered a job paying less than the National Minimum Wage.

Perhaps Labour's commitment at Manchester to strengthen enforcement of the National Minimum Wage through higher penalties and new powers for local authorities will have some impact. Labour also promised to increase the National Minimum Wage for those aged 21 and above to £8 an hour by the end of the next Parliament, though that would still make it less than it would have been had increases continued to be applied at the rate they were before the financial crisis.

It wasn't a fact mentioned at the party conferences but far more women than men are in low paid jobs; among those who have only had minimum wage jobs in the last ten years almost four out of five are women.

We also heard much about zero hours contracts at the party conferences and again women are hit particularly hard by these. Just as with minimum wage or sub-minimum wage jobs, zero hours contracts are harder to avoid if you have fewer choices in the first place and harder to escape from when there's no alternative. And imagine trying to bring up children when you don't know when you will pick up your next wage, or how much it will be.

Our ComRes poll found that nearly one in four NEET women has been offered a zero hours contract - as one of them put it "like pay as you go, literally".

Zero hours contracts aren't illegal and they are not likely to become so, even though they merited mention in both Labour and the Conservatives' conference speeches. David Cameron only promised to abolish exclusivity clauses in zero hours contracts not the contracts themselves.

But what of this new workforce, to be paid, quite legally, a fraction of the National Minimum Wage for; a wage so low that those receiving it will have to work 40 hours a week just to scrape past the poverty line?

The Liberal Democrats talked of reforming apprenticeships "to improve quality and employability". Vince Cable said he wanted to see them properly valued but proposed an increase of just £1 an hour for all first year apprentices. So they will still be paid a wage it is impossible to live on, entirely legally.

Let's be clear, apprenticeships can be an excellent way of giving young people the skills they need and helping them make the transition into employment and, in many cases, work that will offer a very fulfilling and long-term career.

But many apprenticeships do not offer much in the way of training or progression. Instead they provide yet another, quite legal, way in which employers can exploit their workforce.

The reality is, it is easy for party leaders to promise new apprenticeships but much harder for them to provide them. According to recent research from the British Chambers of Commerce, less than a third of employers (32%) say they would offer apprenticeships, so where will all these new opportunities come from?

If they are found, how many of the new apprentices will be young women? At the moment young women are training and working in a much narrower range of occupations than young men, those traditionally associated with women. Five sectors account for 61% of all female apprenticeships whilst the same proportion of men work in more than ten sectors.

My concerns notwithstanding, it was obviously good to hear commitments on the minimum wage and zero hours contracts, and on apprenticeships too. But where were the commitments to address the long-standing issues that see so many more young women than men in low-paid, insecure employment and so many more young women - over 90,000 more - not in employment, training or education?