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`It's impossible to have any kind of life on this pay. I'd pay all my bills then run out of money and not eat properly'

Lisa Dugdale is 22. And she thinks that the minimum wage plan will turn young people into second-class citizens.
WHEN LEIGHANE Ashworth was 17 she used to start her day by running to work at 7.30 to fit in an hour at the supermarket before the school day started. The pounds 3.16 an hour she was paid barely covered her bus fare.

"There's only me and my mum," she says. "I needed the money to give her for housekeeping, so half my wages was going on that. I couldn't turn work down, so some days I was working 12-hour days. They would call me in at any opportunity because it was far cheaper to get me than one of the older women."

It is something that Lisa Dugdale can sympathise with. When she was 18 she worked for as little as pounds 2.50 an hour in an off-licence.

"I was working there with two managers who were both getting far more money than me and yet I was doing the same things - holding the keys, cashing up at the end, fending off huge drunk people."

Under the Government's proposal for the minimum wage, Leighane would have had no minimum wage at all - as she was under 18 - whereas Lisa would have been eligible for only 50p an hour more. They are keen to tell the Government that just being under 25 does not mean life is cheaper.

Nor does it mean that they do not have adult responsibilities. More than a million people aged 16-25 were listed as heads of households in the last census, and a third of them had dependent children.

The situation has got progressively worse for young workers. While in 1979 young men under 21 had earnings of on average 63 per cent of all male workers, this had fallen to less than half by 1996.

The corresponding figures for young women saw a fall of 77 per cent to 57 per cent. Cases reported to the Low Pay Unit have included an 18-year- old paid pounds 1.50 an hour for a 40-hour week in a home for adults with special needs, a 19-year-old beautician from Yorkshire earning pounds 1 an hour and a man from Birmingham who was paid 8p for each pair of trousers he made.

"It's virtually impossible to have any kind of life on these sorts of wages," says Lisa, now 22.

"The problem is that when you are working you are spending more money: you have to take in packed lunches and pay your fares. I didn't feel I had any more money than when I was on income support of pounds 36 a week."

Lisa was taking home pounds 70 a week of which pounds 50 went on rent. Her survival strategy was simple. "I ate a lot of toast and cereal. I'd try and budget and pay all my bills when I got paid and then I would run out of money and not eat properly. Then you end up getting ill."

Other survival strategies for young people mean working the benefits system from an early age: "Young people I've known would take part-time jobs, cash in hand, to top up their benefit, even if it was for just pounds 20 a week extra," Lisa says. "That happened to a friend of mine and it just meant she had the money to afford the television licence and pay her bills. It makes it more commercially viable for you to claim benefits and get a cash job."

Leighane, now 18, was working more than 30 hours, but because she was counted as part-time she did not get sick pay or holiday pay.

"I needed the money, so I just had to agree to the hours they offered me." She was taking home about pounds 200 a month, which left her about pounds 10 per week for herself after she had handed over the housekeeping and paid her bus fare and money for food.

Both Leighane and Lisa found themselves increasingly estranged from their friends. "It becomes more difficult to see friends," said Lisa. "They get fed up asking you if you want to come out and you saying no. Then sometimes they would take you out for a drink and you'd feel like a scrounger because you couldn't buy one back. Or they'd think you weren't really skint, you were tight."

Cathy (not her real name) found that working as an 18-year-old meant she was not treated as an equal. She took home pounds 55 a week - roughly pounds 1.18 an hour. "I was supposed to be a shop assistant but I used to do the cleaning and go and get the manager's dinner. It was slave labour.

"I was living at home and so I used to give my mum pounds 20 for my board and try to survive on the rest. I didn't spend too much on food because I never got a dinner hour - you took it when you could and if a customer came into the shop you had to leave your food and serve them.

"I was really ill once and the manager implied that if I didn't come in I would lose my job. I came in and was ill and got sent home. When I went back after two days, the two days were knocked off my wages."

She was eventually sacked. "It was raining. I used to cycle to work and I was two to three minutes late. I had a lovebite on my neck and the manager laid into me. He told me to take my work jumper off and that I had lost my job. I'm still unemployed now and although I'm not much worse off on benefit, I want to work."

All three feel that the Government's action will do nothing to encourage young people to take up work. They feel, they say, like "second class citizens".

"Nothing is cheaper because you are younger, and yet we are expected to be paid less," says Lisa. "A landlord is not going to say your rent is cheaper because you are under 25. Your travelcard isn't any cheaper, and your food certainly isn't any cheaper. Don't the Government realise that?"