When Cait Reilly refused to work for free at Poundland, the tabloids had a field day. How lazy and idealist are the youth of today! Fancy being on the dole and turning down work! Wasn’t like she had anything better to do, she just couldn’t be arsed… Dossing about, expecting handouts from the state and giving nothing in return, good god, in my day we would have had her belted. Worse than the damn foreigners these young people.
Etc. Etc., you know the script.
Cait’s refusal was not out of a snobbery for Poundland, the retail sector, or those who work in retail. It was out of disdain for a system that thinks young people’s labour is worth less than other people’s, and which has now deemed it worthless. The government’s compulsory ‘work experience’ schemes, in which young people on unemployment benefit are ordered to give their labour to large corporations for free, are becoming the status-quo and have massive swathes of public support behind them. The more well-meaning of these misguided supporters think the government are doing us a favour, making us more employable. These tend to be the same people who believe that if you want a job, you will get one, and if you don;t have one, it must be due to laziness and unwillingness to work. Today’s news tells us that of the 231,000 people currently unemployed in Scotland, over 88,000 are aged 18 to 24. So 38% of Scots on the dole are youth (and these figures don’t even take the 16-17 group into consideration).
It is simply untrue that young people do not want to work. In Scotland, many young people have part-time jobs while still in high school, and rely on part-time work to see them through university. Tuition fees might remain free for Scots studying in their home countries, but rent and food are not. The student who does nothing but party is an archaic stereotype, and a myth. The student who must fit in classes around part time jobs – in many cases students have more than one of these – is an increasing commonality, especially in the case of lower-paid working-class families who simply cannot afford to support their children while they are away at university. Graduates who are unable to find jobs in their sector due to ‘lack of experience’ or a simple lack of jobs are being turned away from lower-paid jobs on the grounds that they are ‘over-qualified’, creating a widing graduate employment gulf. And young people who do not go to university, preferring to leave education in order to make a wage sooner, are increasingly finding that there are no jobs for them. Where even minimum-wage jobs demand extensive ‘experience’, school-leavers increasingly find themselves at a loose end in a system that refuses to accomodate them. Clearly the factors leading to youth unemployment are much more multifarious than unwillingness to work or idealist attitudes.
So is this huge number, this 38% of Scotland’s unemployed being youth, a crazy coincidence? Or is it symptomatic of a system that consistently works against the interests of young people?
Either way, free labour presents no solution, and it works against everyone’s interests, not just those of the youth. Why would a company employ someone to do labour for them when they could have a young person do it for free? The Tories are notorious for acting in the interests of big business and ‘the city’ rather in the interests of the people, and no more so than here. In a Britain where young people’s labour is worthless, unemployment increases for every age category, since the workforce is increasingly made up of unpaid people on unemployment benefit. This scheme does not make young people more employable, it makes them work for dole – and even if we are to see unemployment benefit as a substitute for the wages they would otherwise earn from this labour (which it categorically isn’t, but humour me for a second) – we are still expecting young people to work for a fraction of the minimum wage – a fraction of what an employee would be paid to do the same job. And this fraction of the minimum wage is paid for by the taxpayer, rather than by the company that gets the benefit of this virtually free labour.
As usual, we can find some guidance here in Marx. The theory of surplus value tells us that profit is created from workers being paid the lowest possible wage for their labour – necessarily this must be less than the products of their labour are worth to a buyer. The lower the wage, the higher the profit margin. Free labour – or, at best, dole-priced labour – results in a widespread acceptance of the assumption that labour isn’t worth wages, thus devaluing everyone’s labour. People are paid less as a result, thus company profiits go up, and the unemployment statistics are worse than ever due to unemployed people being used as virtual slaves. This is a super-capitalist plot devised to increase company profit using the poorest members of our society, relying on the prejudice many have for young people in order to quell any resistance to a scheme that devalues everyone’s labour, and makes the unemployment problem worse. Classic Tory strategy, whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Cait Reilly simply refused to be a dole slave. The system demands she works. She demands it gives her a job. She demands her labour – and by extension everyone’s – be worth at least minimum wage.