Price of a degree - hours of study and slave labour

October 22, 1999

Unions are fighting for better wages for students who have to work. Kathryn Jackson reports

Last year, a 24-year-old student named Simon Jones took a job as a labourer on Shoreham docks, West Sussex. After a few minutes of training, he started work. Two hours later, he was killed when the grab bucket of a crane closed suddenly, partly severing his head.

Such a tragic story may be rare, but there are countless examples of students in part-time work who suffer hardship - almost half of all full-time students work part-time. Government guidelines say they should not be working more than 15 hours per week, "but the reality is that the vast majority work much more than that", says Richard Darlington, press officer of the National Union of Students.

With loans averaging just Pounds 3,500 per year, many students cannot make ends meet without a job on the side. To finance a postgraduate journalism course at City University, Emma Forrest, 23, took out a student loan. After paying tuition and rent, she was left with almost nothing. She took a pub job, earning Pounds 4 an hour. "Even so," she says, "I had to put in more than 20 hours a week. If I worked any less, I had to eat pasta all week."

The long hours and late nights took their toll. "I got so run down that I really messed up on my assignments," she says. "I tried not to miss any classes, but sometimes I just had to."

Emma can count herself lucky. She was earning more than the national minimum wage, which guarantees adult workers Pounds 3.60 an hour. It came into effect on April 1 1999, and was, says Mr Darlington, "the first time many students ever got a rise".

But it does not go far enough. "Many students have to work very long hours. They tend to work in clubs and fast-food chains, working 'anti-social' hours: late at night, on weekends and holidays," explains Mr Darlington. "It really damages their educational experience. Even with the most fantastic lecturers in the world, these students are just too exhausted to benefit."

The NUS recommends that the minimum wage be set at half the earnings of an average male - in other words at about Pounds 5 an hour.

The situation can be even worse for the under-22s. The government has set a minimum rate of Pounds 3.20 an hour for workers aged 18-21, with no minimum for workers younger than that. The NUS, along with the Trades Union Congress, the General, Municipal and Boilermakers union and public-sector union Unison, finds the differential rate unfair and discriminatory: a study by Unison found that young workers are doing jobs similar to those carried out by older workers, but being paid much less.

"It is very discouraging for a young person to be paid less than someone else, just because of a slight age difference, when they are both doing the same job," says Deborah Littman of Unison.

Bianca Kennedy, a 16-year-old student at Bournemouth College, worked every Saturday at a local shoe shop. She was given a lot of responsibility almost immediately: "Besides selling shoes, I took money to the bank, went to the post office, and worked the cash register." For all this, she was paid Pounds 1.93 an hour - perfectly legal, since she is under 18, but a lot less than her co-workers who were doing the same job. "It was devastating to discover that my friend, who is also 16, was earning more than me." Ms Kennedy says she felt like a slave, and is now looking for another job.

Despite potential savings, few companies have actually taken advantage of the differential rate. Even McDonald's, where 70 per cent of the staff are under 20, pays the adult rate to all workers over 18. This reflects new management practice, where pay is based on competence. There are some exceptions, however.

Last May, the NUS joined with the GMB and Unison in condemning employers who lowered their rate of pay for workers under 21. Those named on the NUS "list of shame" included Pizza Hut, Forte Hotels and Russell & Bromley. Representatives of all three companies point out that they fully comply with the national minimum wage.

Russell & Bromley pays an adult rate from the age of 19, and is now reviewing the rate paid to younger workers. More than 50 per cent of all employees at Pizza Hut are under 22, but the company has no policy of age-related pay, says David Waters, human resources director. "Individual managers decide, on the basis of experience rather than age, what the hourly pay will be. No one at Pizza Hut earns less than Pounds 3 an hour."

Forte also says that initial pay level is determined by experience and skills rather than by age. But, says Ms Littman, "Where you have a huge turnover rate, as at Pizza Hut, it's hard to argue that experience is needed to do the job. The work is routine, and after two weeks, everyone has reached the same level of competence."

The government set the low wage rate fearing that anything higher would encourage employers to sack their young staff. "We have not found this to be the case," says Ms Littman. "There's no need to set such a low wage rate, which now allows some companies to take advantage of younger workers."

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