junior rates

The best part of the ACTU’s Melbourne rally earlier this month was not the banners, the chants or the speeches — it was the babies. Back-slapping, brawny construction workers and tattooed dockers were momentarily distracted from bellowing workplace grievances by the tiny balls of swaddled cuteness.

Flag-bearing nurses flashed beaming smiles, striking academics mouthed “aww” in unison, even the stony-faced police guarding the peaceful mob waved at the tiny proletarians. I haven’t been so distracted amidst public political agitation since the marriage equality rallies, when the local gay community revealed themselves to be prolific owners of miniature dachshunds.

Two days prior at Brisbane’s Labor Day march, Ten News noted that the union movement was “shoring up its future with plenty of new recruits”. Dozens of primary schoolers deftly placated the roving reporter with expert flag waving and adorable soundbites of solidarity. Clearly, persistent, inflated accusations of violence and thuggery by conservative commentators have led unionists to put their families front-and-centre, reminding everyone who they’re fighting for.

Union leaders would be sorely hoping that these children maintain the rage too, because over the past few decades young workers have disengaged, and the future of unions looks bleak.

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Where are all the young people?

In 2017, the ABS reported just 4% of workers aged 15-19, and 7% of workers aged 20-24 were union members in their main job, down from 8% total in 2013. By comparison, overall union membership sits at 15.6%.

Young people are not ideologically anti-union, and generally share union values. But young workers today have fewer connections to other union members, and are more likely to be employed in de-unionised industries. Consequently, young workers often face exploitation, underpayment and insecurity, as revealed by a high-profile series of wage-theft claims in hospitality, and often feel too powerless to fight back.

How do unions reverse this trend? Changing legislation to allow unions to organise and agitate more effectively is vital. But unions must also prioritise young workers to cultivate support. The SDA, for instance, can hardly complain about youth disengagement after neglecting the interests of young workers in major EBAs. Yet the establishment of the Young Workers Centre and Hospo Voice illustrate the union movement is finally listening to future generations of potential members they cannot afford to ignore.

Might I suggest a further policy campaign ripe to energise young workers in solidarity?

Abolish junior rates!

Young workers are paid less than older workers for the same work. Even if their employer abides by all relevant industrial relations laws, which many don’t, young workers can legally expect to be paid a fraction of the minimum wage depending on their age.

Fifteen-year-olds are paid only 36.8% of the national minimum wage, sometimes as little as $6.21 an hour, and this rises by roughly 10% each year until they turn 21. Why over-18s are still considered “juniors” for payment purposes is anyone’s guess, given they are considered adults for drivers’ licenses, alcohol consumption and imprisonment. This tiered system is not only unfair, but creates perverse incentives for employers to roster on the basis of age, not ability.

I vividly remember turning 18. Not for being able to drink; let’s face it, I’d been covertly binge-drinking cheap boxed wine at friends’ backyard house parties for years by then. Not for being able to drive alone; not yet able to parallel park, I didn’t hit the exorbitant practice-hour requirement for another year. I remember it because my employer almost instantly reduced my working hours in favour of newly hired 15-year-olds with no experience and fewer skills. 

Abolishing junior pay rates would not necessarily lead to higher youth unemployment either. As UTS researcher Damian Oliver points out, employers value young workers for more than simply cheap labour, including their willingness to work short and irregular shifts, their physical energy and their “mouldability”. If anything, young workers over 18 might retain hours at the expense of barely-legal teens, which is arguably desirable.

Five years ago, the SDA launched a campaign for full pay for workers 18 and over, but the campaign has since gone quiet. The ACTU should now advocate abolishing wage handicaps entirely. Unions must focus their imagination and resources on future generations, lest their rallies in 50 years be empty.