Last week youth rates came into effect. Youth rates will primarily affect service industries like retail and hospitality, due to the mass youth labour which supports them. However, in the same week New Zealand made a big deal about an MP lording his privilege over a waiter, a cut in wages for young people (many of whom will be wait staff) was met with overwhelmingly centrist crap.
Despite the divergent research on the effectiveness of youth wages in enticing employers to hire young people, and despite the fact that it’s fundamentally awful to pay someone less based on their age, a surprising number of otherwise pro worker’s rights folk argued this was a good ‘foot in the door’ for youth.
I realise that youth wages affects all industries and all young workers given the new youth rate. But I want to focus on hospitality because evidently we care heaps when a waiter gets bullied by an MP, but not when their wages suddenly reflect a prejudice we otherwise legislate against in our employment law.
Hospitality is an industry where, at 16, you can find yourself being called in for a “trial” shift for free at a popular CBD café. You called last week when you were searching for work given your babysitting gig was starting to taper off. You’ve never worked in a café before, and you were honest about this, but you said you were reliable and a fast learner. After a dozen or so calls, this one guy finally said they we’re open to hiring you, so here you are at 7am on a Saturday with your best jeans on and your shiniest pair of flat shoes. Sensible shoes, because it’s a big day ahead.
Nobody really notices you or introduces themselves. It doesn’t even seem like a shock to them that you’ve been taken behind the counter by the duty manager, a girl in her early 20’s who seems exasperated by your presence, and made it clear that no one told her you were coming in. You get briefly shown how to do basic counter service stuff, introduced to the kitchen staff, and given an apron.
For the first few hours of the morning, it’s just serving people muffins and scones from the counter and it seems to be going well. Then you get called into the kitchen to help with brunch prep. You’ve never used an industrial cream-whipper before, but you’re instructed to whip a huge batch of cream and “not to fuck it up”.
The head chef is a woman in her 50’s who looks at you like your sub human and, when she comes to check on you a few minutes later, exclaims the cream – which is soft but has stiff peaks like your mother showed you – is “butter”. She screams at you, in front of all 6 kitchen staff, to leave the kitchen. When your duty manager comes to see what the fuss is about, she is informed by the chef that you’re a “moron” who’s a liability to the kitchen and, as you stand with the corners of your eyes starting to sting and your nose starting to itch, your duty manager tells you to get back to the counter food with a little too much glee in her voice. You will later find out this is her first position of power.
Somehow though, you make it through the day. When the lunch rush hits, it is a blur of steam from the coffee machine – which gets so hot you burn yourself three times while trying to pin orders to the side, while being yelled at by a woman demanding to know where your soy comes from. The barista, who insists his orders are pinned there and not on the cooler side of the machine, laughs at you in front of the woman when you say you’re unsure and will check with him. He won’t give you a clear answer, and she hisses “thanks for nothing” at you as she stalks away.
At the end of the day, at 6pm, after you have climbed inside the huge glass food cabinet to clean the tiny grooves of the display front from the inside (“get the new kid to do it, they’re small enough!”) it’s time to go home. Your feet are throbbing so hard they eventually become numb. Nobody gives you any feedback or instruction on how your free trial shift went, so you quietly ask the duty manager. She says coldly that you can come back tomorrow because they’re short staffed, and they’ll give you a time card. You’re hired.
Over the Christmas holidays, you will work that job 9 hours a day, at least 5 days a week. You’re not given a contract. You’re not even sure what one is, or why your parents keep going on about you getting one. You don’t want to cause any trouble.
You will never, ever be as busy as you were in the weekday lunch rushes. Never. No matter how far you graduate up the corporate ladder, you will never have a job that is as physically gruelling, as fast-paced, or requires you to multitask to that degree.
One day, when helping in the gourmet produce section, you will slice your hand open on the ham shaver. It wasn’t labelled. No one had told you about it or showed you how to use it properly, but you were yelled at by the café owner (on one of his brief but terrifying visits) to urgently serve the line of customers wanting ham.
Another day you will walk swiftly into the kitchen to put something away (you get yelled at if you walk too slowly) and you will fall on the freshly mopped slate tiles, straight onto your back, and lie in shock until someone comments they should probably get around to getting a ‘wet floors’ sign and offers you a hand up. You are sore for 4 days and will have a temperamental back from then on, but nobody tells you about ACC and sick leave is frowned upon.
Lunch breaks aren’t really allowed. Sometimes you can grab 15 minutes to eat a half-price sandwich in the dish room with the dishwasher who relentlessly hits on you.
Eventually, the end of the holidays approaches. You approach the owner’s wife to ask whether you could continue with your weekend shifts, but explain that in a fortnight you can no longer work weekdays except for helping with clean up. She is non-committal.
The next day you arrive at work at 7am and find a line of twink has covered your name on the list. When you question the duty manager, she informs you that you’re no longer needed. You’re stunned and just want to leave from embarrassment, but you manage to spit out that you really need a reference to show for your time there. You’re told to come back later.
You do. But everyone is too busy to write you one. After all, you’re just that school kid.
It is scary starting out. It’s hard, for a number of reasons, to be a young person in the workforce. Even in a workplace dominated by young people, being on the lowest hourly rate because of your inexperience or your status is already commonplace. New workers already get treated like crap.
Industries which rely on youth labour do not need any more excuses to keep young people at the bottom of the heap. Youth rates allows for institutional discrimination and exploitation. It encourages the continuation of treating young people and their work as expendable and less valuable.
When two workers are standing with throbbing feet and coffee grinds in the cracks of their hands after a grueling day serving your goddamn lunch, and they clock out with their time cards at the same time, how the fuck is it fair for one of them to be paid less than the other simply because there’s a few years difference in their age? It’s not. And no amount of bootstraps, “foot-in-the-door” rhetoric can convince me otherwise.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to get me and my temperamental back a cup of tea.