Sunday, 31 January 2010

TRADE SECRETS

It's better late than never, as they say, but it's come to my attention that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) released a report over a year ago in which they concluded that the construction industry is one work sector which 'routinely' breaks employment law by hiring and exploiting migrant workers. Being aware of how central the construction industry is to Kent's economy, I felt obliged to discuss this in relation to apprenticeships for young people.

Firstly though, it's worth mentioning that TUC's report defines working in the construction industry as being "precarious work that places people at risk of continuing poverty and injustice resulting from an imbalance of power in the employer-worker relationship." None of this surprises me, of course. After all, it's a well-known fact that immigrant workers are often exploited for cheap labour, as BBC's Newsnight discovered when they found out that some London hotels were paying foreign workers below the minimum wage.

But I would go so far as to argue that young people are similarly exploited by tradesmen when they undertake apprenticeships. I have a couple of friends who do apprenticeship schemes in the construction industry, one of whom is only paid £80 a week, which is the minimum amount permitted by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). Since this friend of mine occasionally works long hours, sometimes he's estimated that he's essentially being paid little more than £1.50 an hour and is treated like a dogsbody, receiving very little one-to-one training.

The rules for pay with regard to apprenticeships are truly scandalous, enabling many tradesmen to sidestep the minimum wage rule and essentially making young apprentices work for peanuts. I mean, sure, they're trainees, but – if you think about it – so are college students. And yet, most people who attend college are eligible for EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance, £30 per week).

I'm reasoning that since the wages for apprenticeships are often so low it might be palatable for the government to consider extending the EMA to include apprenticeship schemes (possibly introducing an AMA, an Apprenticeship Maintenance Allowance, which would top-up the exceptionally low earnings that apprentices receive). At least that would enable young apprentices not to struggle and toil for so little money.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) did another study on apprenticeships more recently (Decent Pay for Apprentices) and concluded that the minimum rate should ideally be increased to £110 a week. This would make it roughly in line with the minimum wage youth rate (£3.40), which begs the question why employers are allowed to get away with paying £80 a week when it flouts the legal requirement for youngsters of a certain age to be paid a minimum wage rate for their labour. How did that slip through the net?

The apprenticeship problem is easily resolvable. Merely topping up their earnings with an AMA would remedy the plight of so many young workers in the construction industry who merely want to learn a trade but are scuppered by long hours and low pay, many of whom are committed to slugging out their guts for years and becoming victims of – as TUC defines it – an "imbalance of power in the employer-worker relationship." Since so many of my friends have lots of nightmarish tales to tell of apprenticeship schemes gone awry, something clearly needs to be done.

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