Why discriminate against the young?

It's wrong for employers to be allowed to exploit young workers.

I AM 22 years old, and if things go the wrong way on the minimum wage - as I fear they might - I'm going to be one those people who our Government believes need less to live off than anyone else. In other words, I won't be getting the full protection of the national minimum wage. And I think that stinks.

I know what it's like working for pounds 2.50 an hour: demoralising, isolating, tough and dehumanising. You can't afford to socialise, your resolve goes, your sense of self-worth is undermined. And always, just as you think you're pulling through, a bill arrives in the post.

When Margaret Beckett launched the bill that established the Low Pay Commission last year, she spoke about the Government's strategy "to help make work pay". And surely that' s the point. To make work pay, to make it worthwhile, to reward the enthusiasm of young people to find a job and better themselves.

That's apart from the argument of fairness. Excluding young people, solely on the basis of age, from wage exploitation is a flagrant and insulting display of discrimination. I don't see how the Government could justify telling young people that we are not entitled to earn as much as someone over 25.

After all, I am an adult with adult responsibilities. I can vote, pay tax and national insurance. I have to find the money to put a roof over my head and food in my stomach, neither of which cost less because I am under 25, under 21, or whatever the cut-off rate will be.

I am happy to work as hard as anyone, regardless of their age. Why then don't I need wage protection if someone with the same responsibilities who is a few years older does?

And I'm not alone. Consider a few statistics. One million 16-to-25-year- olds are heads of households. One third of them have dependent children. Around 45 per cent of men and women between 18 and 20 are being paid less that pounds 3.70 an hour. How do these young people manage to bring up their families?

Of course, we're told that young people can always tap their parents for some spare cash. These are the sort of assumptions made by those with no knowledge of real life. At 17 I became estranged from my parents and had to fend for myself. And apart from estrangement, which is not that uncommon, there's the problem of what to do if your parents are unemployed or low-wage earners themselves.

I have spoken to other young people up and down the country about their possible exclusion from the minimum wage and the resentment they felt was compounded by the hardship they are experiencing. The level of debt, for example, is shocking.

On average, in the survey I conducted for the Children's Society, young people who are working have debts of pounds 1,500. It is interesting that those who don't have jobs have smaller debts, around pounds 1,100. The costs of working, such as travel, clothing and the increased expectation - unfortunately misplaced - of a better standard of living seem to have pushed young people over the edge. One young man I spoke to had been beaten up by debt collectors for pounds 50.

I am starting to see this government as a distant source of power. Take for example it's New Deal for getting young people back to work. A great idea, but what's the good in offering a welfare-to-work plan for young people if you don't care if those in it are exploited?

What's the point in training for work if the job at the end of it doesn't pay enough to live on? Young people are discriminated against in other areas, too. If you are under 25 you receive less job seeker's allowance and housing benefit. Once again the ignorant and insulting suggestion is that young people have fewer needs. They certainly have fewer rights.

The whole point of minimum wage legislation is to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Any tranche of statistics you choose will show that young people are among the most exploited, and the least protected.

To have a minimum wage to protect vulnerable workers and then fail to help those most in need of protection defeats the object of the exercise. It is almost as if we are being told we can't be protected by this legislation because we are not worth investing in.

Excluding us from the protection of the minimum wage not only discriminates, exploits and isolates the young people of this country, it contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Social Charter.

But most of all it is a policy that will condemn young people to debt and poverty. And for a Government committed to ending social exclusion, that's bad news.

The writer carried our research for the Children's Society report `Nothing Less Will Do: Young People's Views on the Minimum Wage'.

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