Young And Underpaid


Caitlin Delbridge carries a lot of financial responsibility on her young shoulders. The working week can sometimes be a struggle as she tries to ensure that the books balance so she has enough cash to cover rent, food and petrol. And while as a public policy student at the Australian National University, a bright future seems assured, the prospect of repaying her large HECS debt after graduation takes the shine off a little.

To fund her studies, Caitlin, who is 20 and lives in Downer, Canberra, works at K-Mart upwards of 16 hours a week. She’s well respected by her colleagues, regularly training and supervising other staff, many of whom are older than her. This is great experience, she says. But it’s slightly tainted by the fact that she earns less than they do for doing the same job.

Under current Australian employment legislation, workers under 21 are paid less for doing the same job as someone over 21 – regardless of previous experience or training. So, an 18-year-old is paid 30 per cent less, a 19-year-old 20 per cent less and a 20-year-old 10 per cent less.

The Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) say that the current legislation is outdated, discriminatory and unfair. They recently launched a claim before the Fair Work Commission which recommended that 18-20-year-olds be progressively paid the minimum wage.

In the background of this debate is the question of where industrial relations currently sit in the Australian political landscape.

Tony Abbott is exercising extreme caution; the recent release of his Policy to Improve the Fair Work Laws described by the University of Canberra’s Michelle Grattan, as a “soft touch”. Meanwhile, the ALP is playing it reasonably quiet on industrial relations too.

Why is this so? According to Associate Professor Peter Sheldon, an IR expert from the School of Management at the University of New South Wales, it has much to do with the spectre of September’s federal election and the Coalition’s keen desire to avoid reminding voters of WorkChoices.

“Abbott does not want to fight the election on IR – that’s what lost Howard the 2007 election. The big employer associations and more politically aligned big business CEOs have also gone quiet – they don’t want to expose him during what has been a prolonged election campaign,” he says. “If they start talking about the need for radical changes to IR law on the basis of competitiveness and productivity then Labor can put Abbott on the spot. If he agrees with the employer associations and CEOs, then he is opening up a huge area of electoral vulnerability. And if he refuses to back them without committing to anything, then he looks weak and shifty and may have to renege on this.”

Caitlin is far away from these complicated political machinations. For her, junior pay rates don’t make sense. “Once you turn 18, society sees you as an adult,” she says. “You can vote, you can sign contracts, you can drink alcohol. You are given all these responsibilities but at work you’re still treated as a child.”

Joe de Bruyn, National Secretary of the SDA, agrees with Caitlin. He told New Matilda by email that “the awards provisions governing junior rates have been in place for decades – they are prehistoric and illogical. It’s time to overturn them and replace them with something that better reflects today’s society and provides younger workers with the pay they deserve.”

For employers, matters are not so clear cut. According to Russell Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Australian Retailers Association (ARA), his members, many of them small and medium businesses, stand to lose out if junior pay awards are abolished. “Many of our members are reliant on a minimum wage workforce and any move to increase youth wages during this time of low consumer confidence will only result in further job losses and more business closures.”

Zimmerman tells New Matilda that by employing younger workers, retailers are giving young people a chance to improve their skills and opportunities and this will, in turn, decrease youth unemployment.

“Any sensible employer will want to retain good young workers – the retail industry wants young people to see it as a career path, a profession. However, if you increase pay rates for younger workers, employers won’t give the youngsters this opportunity and will just start employing older workers who have more experience.”

To Zimmerman, age means experience. ‘You can’t put old shoulders on young heads. Some experience can be gained quickly, like working a cash register. But go into a Bunnings store. The staff are former tradesmen in their 60s, 70s, even 80s and their experience and knowledge is phenomenal – they know what they are talking about.”

This view is rejected by Caitlin who says that as someone who has been working since she was 15, she brings value to her workplace. “I’m doing a lot with my life,” she says. “I’ve moved out of home, I’m studying and I’ve been working for five years. I might not have the same life experience as someone older but I’m willing to work hard. If you understand your workplace and what customers want then you can help them out, regardless of age.”

This month, the Federal Government came out to support the SDA, suggesting in a submission (pdf) to the Fair Work Commission that outlawing junior pay rates would have little impact on youth employment.

This encouraging signal drew fire from the ARA, who branded the Government’s support as “disgraceful” and vowed to continue to fight the case.

Will the SDA’s campaign will be successful? The Commission is due to begin hearings in early July, and a decision is expected sometime between July and September.

For Caitlin, however, all of this brouhaha simply comes down to one thing – fairness. She would just be happy with a small pay increase – something which would mean that those last few days before payday weren’t always such a struggle. “I have all of these expenses; rent, food, bills – exactly the same things as someone older than me. It’s doesn’t make sense that I’m paid less for doing the same job. It’s just not fair.”

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.