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Wage boost demand for apprentices

Unions and small firms unite in a campaign for minimum earnings of pound;110 a week that is more likely to benefit women

Small businesses and unions are uniting to demand a better deal for low-paid apprentices earning as little as pound;2 an hour. The Federation of Small Businesses, which represents 210,000 companies, has backed the campaign by the TUC to raise apprentices' minimum earnings to pound;110 a week.

Employer support for the campaign comes as the Government is trying to boost apprenticeship numbers from 250,000 today to 400,000 in 2020, which would make one in five of all teenagers apprentices within 10 years.

Businesses and unions argue that this will be impossible unless the pay rate is more attractive and wage subsidies are made available for smaller employers.

Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, said: "The quality and diversity of apprenticeships must improve if they are to grow over the next decade.

"Completion rates are an important indicator of quality, and improving pay is crucial to ensuring that people can afford to complete their course.

"Increasing the minimum pay for apprentices to pound;110 a week will boost their reputation and convince more people to train."

Apprentices who are under-18 are exempt from the minimum wage regulations. Instead, the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) guarantees at least pound;80 a week. The Government's review of apprentices conceded that this is not always enforced and the figure has not increased since 2005 - a pound;10 cut in real terms.

Even those who do receive the minimum pay claim it is not enough. Luke Guster began an apprenticeship at 17 with a West Sussex motorbike shop, earning pound;80 a week for 42.5 hours work, plus occasional weekends.

To make ends meet, he had to work at Tesco for two evenings, earning a further pound;50 a week. It meant two 13-hour days.

He said he had a lot of responsibility in the shop, often working independently - so apprentices are productive workers. "It's terrible," he said. "It's just taking the mick. We should get the same minimum wage as everyone else."

The TUC calculates that even in hairdressing, the lowest-paid occupation for apprentices, raising the minimum wage would add just 0.1 per cent to the industry's wage bill.

With childcare apprenticeships also among the lowest paid, women are more likely to be on poor wages. Sally Copley, director of policy, resources and campaigns at the YWCA, said apprenticeships assume teenagers are being supported by their parents, forgetting that some have children themselves.

Even in better-paid trades, apprentices are tempted to leave.

Tom Gillespie, 18, from Oldham, Lancashire, earned pound;125-a-week as a plumbing apprentice while he watched friends earn more - one picked up a labouring job with no skills required for pound;328 a week.

He said: "Everyone says by the time you're 30, having done the apprenticeship is a licence to print money. But you have to live now."

The National Union of Students says apprentices should receive the adult minimum wage of pound;5.52 an hour. Beth Walker, the union's vice-president for FE, said: "It's not possible to support someone on pound;80 a week. There should be one minimum wage for everyone, including apprentices."

Poor pay is most common reason for quitting apprenticeships, according to The National Foundation for Educational Research, cited by more than one in four who drop out. Two-fifths of apprentices have considered leaving because of the pay. Completion rates have improved dramatically in recent years, but two-fifths still fail to finish.

The LSC said it enforces the pound;80-a-week minimum payment through its contracts with employers and training providers. Stephen Gardner, its director of work-based learning, said: "Should any apprentice be paid less than this, they should contact their local learning and skills council."

The Government's review of apprenticeships proposes strengthen ing the enforcement of the minimum wage for apprentices as well asking the Low Pay Commission to examine their wages.

Leading article, page 4.

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