Don't use apprentices as cheap labour, campaigners warn

Apprentices must not be used to undercut wages post-Covid – give them proper pay and quality training, say experts

Kate Parker

Coronavirus and apprenticeships: Don't use apprentices as cheap labour, campaigners warn

Businesses should not use apprentices as cheap labour as they try to recoup losses from the coronavirus pandemic, campaigners have warned.

When speaking at a Labour policy panel on Tuesday, Young Labour and GBM Young Members committee member Jawad Khan raised concerns that apprentices would be hired to fill roles that would normally attract a higher salary than the apprentice wage. 

He told Tes: “We’re already seeing some awful employment practices from some companies. We need to make sure that, post-Covid, companies don't use the apprenticeship levy as a way to put in cheap labour or generally to get around paying a decent wage.

“There’s not much point in boosting apprenticeship numbers for numbers' sake if they don’t actually reflect fulfilling work for people. We have the opportunity with the Covid recovery for the government to bring in investment so that they are creating good apprenticeships. Now, more than ever, we need the government to play its role and ensure these apprenticeships are guaranteed.”

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The apprenticeship wage increased by 6.4 per cent in April this year to £4.15, giving apprentices working a 40-hour week an annual salary of just £8,632. The current minimum wage for 18- to 20-year-olds is £6.45, which rises to £8.20 at the age of 21. 

Khan also stressed that apprenticeships needed to be quality opportunities for people – and that pay needed to be higher. 

He said: “The apprenticeship levy guarantees that companies create apprenticeships, but what we need is solid guarantees on the quality of those apprenticeships. We need to make sure that there is quality learning there rather than them just being cheap labour. We also need recognition that paying someone £4.15 an hour for doing a job is not enough.”

Apprenticeships: Young people 'are vulnerable to exploitation'

A spokesperson from The Apprentice Voice said that Khan had "highlighted a very legitimate concern."

They said: "New government incentives for employers to hire apprentices might encourage them to recruit, but it doesn't necessarily ensure quality. The Apprentice Voice believes we can improve the value of apprenticeship by ensuring it is meaningful work with a clear pathway to progression, increasing the minimum wage, introducing mentoring for all apprentices and enforcing the 20 per cent per cent off-the-job training requirement.

"Employers can pay apprentices aged under 19 or those in the first year of their apprenticeship just £4.15 per hour – a wage far too low to cover basic living costs. With 16- to 24-year-olds currently three times more likely to be out of work than other age groups, this leaves the most disadvantaged young people vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers, resulting in poor outcomes and reinforcing the image of an apprenticeship as a second-rate option."

The National Society of Apprentices' (NSoA) leadership team member Amy Dowling said that the "exploitation of young workers is unfortunately not a new thing". 

She said: "As NSoA has highlighted many times before, the exploitation of young workers is unfortunately not a new thing. Apprentices, who are workers of course, often feel the brunt of this.

"In our recent report, we set out our belief that apprentices should be paid a living wage, and we support any moves in this direction. In the current climate of huge decreases in apprenticeship starts. however, we think it’s probably more important to push for better support for apprenticeships.

"This includes the equipment they need to do their jobs; real support for mental health; and making sure we are actually getting the education and training that’s being paid for.

"We would be happy to work with Young Labour to make sure apprentice voices are heard within their organisation. It’s vital that the debate about apprenticeships includes the voices of apprentices.”

Monitoring the situation

Jane Hickie, managing director at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), said that the "situation needs to be monitored closely". 

She said: "If there are employers out there who want to exploit the situation, then they are more likely to use Kickstart as it has more attractive incentives and it doesn’t require the employer to do any training.

“The IfATE [Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education] survey of apprentices this week showed that 87 per cent are very happy with their programmes, in common with many other survey findings over the last five years, and so the evidence clearly points to the vast majority of employers engaged in the programme are committed to their apprentices benefitting from a high-quality experience.  

"Most employers know that the return on investment in terms of productivity gains and lower staff turnover are the rewards of that commitment.”

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateeParker

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