Short-changing the kids

This Budget put profit before young people.

The Chancellor's key soundbite during his Budget speech was that Britain will be "held aloft by the march of the makers", but it will also be accompanied by the silent march to the jobcentre by the young jobless – especially those aged 16-19.

No one seems to have noticed that Osborne's Budget was void of any substantial help for them. Instead, he offered tax breaks for corporations, to help their profit margins. And even what scraps he did offer had nothing to alleviate the pressures faced by young people in this country today.

The government will say it is increasing apprenticeships by 12,500 a year. Although this is of course welcome, ultimately it will be possible only if there are jobs created. More importantly, however, it has nothing to offer the almost 200,000 young people doing NVQs, many of whom will be receiving EMA or will have to complete the course to be able to go on to do an actual apprenticeship.

The Budget did not have a single word to say to these young people. If anything, George Osborne's silence on this speaks volumes for this government's overall commitment to the young.

Take the news on stamp duty: the average age of a first-time housebuyer is 30 and is expected by some to rise to 44. Or the raising of the personal allowance: this won't help the almost one million unemployed young people in the country. And as only 23 per cent of 16-to-17-year-olds were in employment in the last quarter of 2010, this is clearly not something the majority of adolescents can benefit from.

Then there was the headline announcement: a penny off fuel duty, accompanied by fare rises of 6.2 per cent on average. How will this help young people, when so many more of them use public transport?

You would think that, faced with such facts, the last thing a government would do, if it really had the interests of young people at heart, would be to continue scrapping EMA, especially after a number of leading economists last week signed an open letter in support of the policy. Osborne could have even looked at his own Budget, as on page 33 of the Red Book it even states that participation in learning by 16-to-18-year-olds has continued to rise.

But no extra money will come from the Treasury for EMA's planned replacement, meaning that it will have to be found from within the Education Department, leading to further education cuts.

There are strong rumours that the extra funding will come from careers advice for 16-to-19-year-olds, an area heavily deprived of funds already. Only this week leading head teachers warned the government that closing the Connexions youth service will put almost two million young people at risk of having to enter the job market bereft of advice.

The English economic historian and advocate of further education R H Tawney wrote of education in England in the 1920s that the biggest obstacle it faced was that "the prevailing temper of Englishmen is to regard as most important that which is commercially profitable, and as of only inferior importance that which is not". Ninety years later, it still rings true.

James Mills is part of the Save EMA campaign.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.