by Nick Bano
At the European Summit yesterday the President of the European Commission put forward the €22bn scheme cooked up at Davos to address the youth unemployment crisis, the ghastly effects of which are now discussed frequently in the media. This one’s on the EU social fund (which, it turns out, has the money going begging) and would ensure that young people are guaranteed “a good quality offer of employment, continued education, an apprenticeship, or traineeship” within four months of leaving school. But dare we (to use Ed Miliband’s marvellous phrase) take this news with a pinch of sugar?
If I had €22bn in my back pocket, youth unemployment is without a doubt the issue that I’d spend it on, but in the UK there are problems that would have to be addressed out before I paid up. The plan apparently includes “country specific” mechanisms drawn up jointly by the Commission and member states’ governments, but on the basis of the British government’s specificities, the resulting programmes would almost certainly be at odds with the important concept of “good quality”.
The government’s recent youth employment triumphs includes plenty of opportunities at Asda, which is part of Wal-Mart Stores and notorious to labour lawyers as a dreadful employer (Asda’s practises effectively gave employers the right to unilaterally alter terms of employment through the Bateman v Asda case). In addition, and in apparent contempt of Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, there is the infamous ‘work experience’ programme whereby any job seeker who won’t provide free unskilled labour to a company will lose their benefits. The other prospective large-scale employer, McDonalds, has been a euphemism for poor quality jobs for years, and while I don’t mean to condescend, ‘McJobs’ should hardly be the rallying cry to assault the problems facing the most educated generation the world has ever seen. These are the great policy victories that the government must bring to the Commission and ask for funding for their continuance.
Beyond employment, the scheme also focuses on apprenticeships and traineeships. It is not clear whether these are bywords for glorified internships, but there has been a notable drift towards them in recent years. Interns (and this is by no means restricted to the private sector) ceased to perform demeaning but harmless tasks – filing and making tea – as organisations started to notice highly-qualified and willingly free labour, which is manifestly unjust and effectively destroys paid jobs. There is certainly a debate about the ideal definition of an intern, but the consensus is that productive work and education should both be included (although learning experiences should probably be a little gentler than the one undertaken by Tom Watson’s unfortunate intern last week. Incidentally, if she’s not paid then she owes him nothing).
This concept of practical but poorly paid work in exchange for training and an eventual job is not ignoble and it has deep historical roots in medieval guilds. However, the story of the successful master craftsman will sound a lot less familiar to today’s generation than the abuses portrayed in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, in which young peoples’ parents pay huge sums for their children to labour for months (sometimes years) in poverty for their masters, only to be told that no job exists for them after all. On the basis of the skill mismatch that runs so deep in the global labour market today, nothing short of a sea change in entry-level training will stop employers from veering towards over-skilled, unwaged (and therefore privileged) interns – or interns by any other name that fulfils the EU’s four-month-programme requirement.
During the panel discussion on youth unemployment at Davos the International Labour Organization’s director-general (whose Decent Work Agenda must be praised in contrast to the current attitude of jobs for jobs’ sake) was keen to stress the role of dialogue. However, young people now completely fail to fit into the model of social partnership. Most young people are disengaged by virtue of current circumstances: we are either atomised due to unemployment, or transient because of precarious or short-term work or internships. Young people in this state are not the natural clients of trade unions, whose primary function is to protect their own members’ jobs and conditions, and there is far too little representation or involvement of young people in policy-making or effective lobbying. This leaves those billions of euros in the hands of the people who brought you the ‘work experience programme’ and passed the one million milestone in youth unemployment. Two weeks ago during PMQs David Cameron even got the ILO’s name wrong.
It might sound simplistic to say that better representation of young people would generate better policies, but there really is a deep ambivalence at the policy making level. I was recently asked if I wanted a three-month internship editing a 400 page technical document down to 100 – a productive task that requires an already skilled worker to live in Geneva, one of the world’s most expensive cities. I asked if it was paid – “no” was the response “but it’s a great experience”. The employer? The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. Without a high-level change in attitude to the concept of “good quality”, achieved through engagement and dialogue, the unjust social rifts, abuses of labour, and sheer exclusivity of today’s labour market are sure to continue.