Although there is near-universal agreement that apprenticeships are a very good thing, few British employers actually offer any. In fact, only 4-8% of firms have any apprentices at all. This reflects how little this complacent, Tory-led government is doing to promote them at a time when youth unemployment stands at one million.
The clock is ticking to save that one million from becoming a lost generation. That is why I have put forward a private member’s bill that would encourage companies that are awarded government contracts worth over a million to take on an apprentice.
I am very passionate about the value of apprenticeships and that why I decided to introduce this private members Bill. It is a relatively small change that would make such a big difference given youth unemployment, not least in my own Denton and Reddish constituency. Youth unemployment remains one of the biggest issues facing our country in these economically tough times.
Sadly, it is highly unlikely that the government will back the proposal. However, I am delighted that Labour, under Ed Miliband, supports it one hundred per cent and would bring it is elected in 2015.
Labour also recognizes that the over-reliance in some sectors of the economy on extremely cheap, low-skilled migrant workers can be a barrier to young people getting their first job or work placement. The care sector, for example, is now heavily dependent on cheap migrant labourers, an estimated 220,000 of whom are not even paid the minimum wage.
This kind of race-to-the bottom is deeply dysfunctional, not least because it means that we are neglecting to invest in the long-term productive capacity of this country, preferring instead the quick-fix of cheap labour.
That is why a future Labour government would require that when a firm hires a worker from outside the EU it will have to offer an apprenticeship in return. Some companies already offer enough apprenticeships, so this won’t apply to them. The requirement also will not apply to small companies who might struggle with the costs. However, any company with a work force of 50 or more who hires from outside the EU and that doesn’t already offer apprenticeships, would be required to take on an apprentice.
It’s also important to recognize that those 220,000 care sector migrant workers who are getting the minimum wage are being exploited and that their employers are committing a crime.
Labour holds non-payment of the minimum wage to be a very serious crime. That is why we would dramatically increase the penalty. Having already committed ourselves to doubling the fine for this offence, if elected, we would increase the maximum penalty even further to £50,000.
As the problem is particularly acute in the care sector, a future Labour government would set up a taskforce to get to the bottom of what is going on and why. This will act as a template for similar taskforces in other sectors where migrant exploitation is rife.
I am delighted that under Ed Miliband, Labour has woken up to the damage that an economic-race-to-the-bottom will do to the chances of young people struggling to get a foothold in the labour market. Instead of paying lip service to apprenticeships, as this government does, we need to harness their full potential – and the policies that Labour is backing at this conference do just that.