When Jayda got her first pay cheque she was really excited. Then, she looked more closely at her hourly rate. 

The 15-year-old hospitality worker was getting paid “way under” the adults around her. 

“When I first started, I was part time,” she says.

“So, I only got paid like $9 an hour.”

Who can get the national minimum wage?

The national minimum wage is $23.23 an hour or $882.80 for a week and will increase by 3.75 per cent on July 1. 

But youngsters such as Jayda can be paid less if they are on what is known as a junior rate. 

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) wants to change that. 

ACTU assistant secretary Joseph Mitchell says the practice is unfair.

“So we have the national minimum wage in Australia, and that national minimum wage applies across people who are above the age of 21,” he says.

“But employers have an option under the law to discount that wage for young people.

“That means anyone under the age of 20 can be paid less than those people above it. Purely for the fact that they’re under the age of 20.”

Union says junior rate discriminatory

Last week, a nationwide meeting of union groups endorsed a campaign to scrap junior wages.

According to the ACTU, minimum wages for young workers are calculated as a percentage of the national minimum wage. 

Junior rates apply to 75 awards, including those with high levels of young workers such as fast food, hospitality, and retail outlets.

Industries Proportion of employees on junior rates of pay (%)
Fast Food Industry Award 2010 61.8
Broadcasting, Recorded Entertainment and Cinemas Award 2020 30.7
Amusements, Events and Recreation Award 2020 23.9
Source: ACTU

For example, at Woolworths and Coles, workers have to be 20 to receive the adult rate. At Bunnings, workers have to be 18 to receive the base rate.

By comparison, in New Zealand workers aged 16 to 19 earn 80 per cent of the minimum wage for the first six months in a job, before then progressing to the full rate. 

In Canada, nearly all provinces have no youth rates of pay. In Alberta and Ontario, students under the age of 18 still get between 85 per cent to 95 per cent of the full minimum wage.

“So many young people are working just as hard as everyone else in the workplace, but getting paid sometimes half, sometimes 60, sometimes 70 per cent of what a full adult does,” Mr Mitchell says.

“It’s ridiculous … an 18-year-old retail worker would need to work 55 hours a week just to earn the same full-time wage as an adult.

“It’s crazy that a 17-year-old waitress gets paid nearly $10 an hour less than her counterpart in the same cafe, even though they’re doing the same work.”

The ACTU also wants to lift junior traineeships and apprentice wages.

“What we’ve seen is some of the dodgiest employers around will employ people on a trainee wage, which is a discount on the minimum wage,” Mr Mitchell says.

“If you’re a young person on a trainee wage, you’re a discount on a discount.

“So the goal is that young people who are doing the same work as every other kind of person should be getting paid the same as every other kind of person.”

‘Entry point’ to job market

However, Australian Retailers Association chief executive Paul Zahra says any changes to wage structure must be sustainable for both employees and employers.

Mr Zahra says junior rates are used to incentivise the employment of young people who are less skilled, giving them an entry point for their careers.

“Without these rates, these young people may otherwise struggle to compete against older, more experienced applicants,” he says.

“Given the current economic conditions, we also have concerns about the impact this change would have on retailers who are experiencing a cost-of-doing-business crisis.

“Many employers in the retail, fast food and pharmacy sectors are small businesses — mum and dad operators — who are severely challenged and simply can’t afford another wage hike.”

Gaby says paying a lower wage to younger people is a form of discrimination.(ABC: Brant Cumming)

It is a concern that Gaby, who works at a supermarket, shares.

“It’s a very controversial issue. I see both sides of it,” she says.

“This rate allows people to get their foot in the door … and paying them at an adult rate may discourage small business owners from employing younger people, which is a shame.

“[But] 18-year-olds are recognised legally as adults in many aspects. You can join the army … you’re allowed to vote … to drink, but you’re not recognised as an adult in your pay, which I think is completely wrong, unjust, and unfair.”

At 19, Gaby earns a lot more than when she started working at the age of 15. But it’s still less than her older colleagues. 

“The difference between an 18-year-old’s pay cheque and a 21-year-old’s is roughly $10, which adds up a lot,” she says.

“It really puts a price on 18-year-olds, which is very unfortunate. In a way, it’s discrimination.”

The full-time university student says teenagers are doing it tougher than ever before. 

“Both 21-year-olds and 18-year-olds have financial responsibilities,” Gaby says.

“With the cost of living, housing crisis, inflation going up, there’s a lot of problems that young people face.”

Same pay for same work 

Jayda says she did get a higher wage eventually but only after she dropped some of her work entitlements.

“My mum had a conversation with the boss and I got put on as casual, and now I get paid, I think, $12.85,” she says.

“It was way better than what I was getting before.”

She says getting equal pay will encourage more youngsters to join the workforce.

“If you are doing the same sort of things as the [adults] and if you get the job done the same, then it should be the same pay.”

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