Employers are failing to pay thousands of apprentices the minimum wage, demanding unpaid overtime and even, in some cases, failing to pay them at all.
Unionlearn, the education and skills body for the Trades Union Congress (TUC), will next week launch a campaign at The Skills Show aimed at teaching apprentices about their rights and employers about their duty to pay the minimum wage.
Apprentices are now entitled to at least pound;2.65 an hour if they are under 19 or in the first year of their apprenticeship. After that, they are entitled to the national minimum wage for their age bracket: pound;4.98 for under-21s and pound;6.19 for others.
But research by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) shows that 20 per cent of apprentices reported being paid less than the apprenticeship minimum wage and 5 per cent received no pay at all. The problem has got worse: in 2007, only 5 per cent of apprentices were paid less than what was then the weekly minimum of pound;95.
TES has found that even apprenticeships promoted through the National Apprenticeships Service (NAS) online matching system explicitly advertise rates of pay below the minimum.
A sea-fishing apprenticeship, found through a search of the NAS database, offers just pound;40 for a 30-hour working week - a wage of pound;1.33 an hour, or about half the expected minimum. An apprenticeship in customer service in a cleaning firm in Devon, also entered on the NAS database, offers pound;42.40 for a 30-hour week - only pound;1.41 an hour.
Graham Randle, apprenticeships liaison and promotion officer at Unionlearn, said the problem may lie with small employers that may not be "aware".
But he argued that in some industries the rates of non-compliance were too high to be the result of ignorance. In hairdressing, for example, he said that nearly half of apprentices were not receiving the minimum. "Forty- eight per cent is too high for every one of those employers not to understand what they are doing," Mr Randle said.
Underpayment may be particularly rife in hairdressing because employers make up apprentice wages in tips: but this practice has been banned since 2010.
The BIS research found that much of the underpayment was to apprentices in their second year, suggesting that employers did not understand that the wage rates changed. It stated that the apprentices who are paid nothing are a "particular concern". Rates of zero pay increased among those aged 18 or under (8 per cent), from ethnic minorities (9 per cent) or on a children's care, learning and development apprenticeship (14 per cent.
The minimum wage should be enforced by HM Revenue amp; Customs, but the policy is for prosecutions to be "selective and exemplary", offering employers a chance to correct pay levels. Mr Randle said that enforcement in apprenticeship pay appeared to be less strict than for other jobs. "At the moment, I think enforcement is pretty weak. We would like to see it enforced the same as the general minimum wage," he said.
In contrast, the Australian Fair Work Ombudsman has prosecuted dozens of cases involving the underpayment of apprentices and publicises its success at recovering unpaid wages. Breaches result in fines of up to A$6,600 (pound;4,300) for owners and A$33,000 for companies, compared with just pound;5,000 in the UK.
Apprentices also complained that pressure to work unpaid overtime was undermining the minimum wage. In hairdressing, three out of five apprentices worked overtime without pay.
Again, TES was able to find examples of apprenticeships on the national matching service where the expectation of unpaid overtime was explicit.
A hairdressing apprenticeship in Doncaster said that candidates would be expected to work "30 to 40 hours" a week. At the bottom of that range, the pound;79.50 weekly wage would just meet the pound;2.65 an hour minimum, but at 40 hours it would fall well short.
And a local authority's apprenticeship for a playground assistant just covers the apprentice minimum wage for 25 hours but also expects two to three hours a week of administration work.
A BIS spokeswoman said that the department was concerned by the level of underpayment, had commissioned further research and was working with the TUC to discuss ways to improve the enforcement of the minimum wage.
She added that the department was also beginning a campaign to publicise its pay and work rights helpline and to better inform employers of their obligations.
- pound;5.83hr The average pay for apprentices.
- 5% of apprentices receive zero pay, despite working for an employer.
- 20% of apprentices are paid less than the minimum apprentice wage, which is pound;2.65 an hour.
- pound;0.00p - More than half of apprentices work overtime; a quarter of those are never paid for it.
- Apprentices in hairdressing, construction or children's care are most likely to be underpaid.