Just days before National Apprenticeship Week – designed by the government “to celebrate apprenticeships and the positive impact they have on individuals, businesses and the wider economy” – an apprenticeship appeared on the government’s website entitled ‘apprentice sandwich artist’.
Posted by fast food chain Subway, the position pays £3.50 an hour for 37 hours a week, which amounts to little more than £100 a week. Apprentices will learn how to “execute proper food handling, safety and cleaning standards whilst handling food” and “greet customers and prepare orders” among other skills.
Subway sandwich artists who are employees, on the other hand, earn at least the minimum wage of £7.20 an hour if not more, and the skills required of a regular employee are virtually the same as that of a Subway apprentice.
Employees only undertake a handful of hours of training before they’re on the job on their own, while the apprenticeship posted on the government website demands a full 12 months of “training”.
That’s an entire year earning only £500 a month, well below the poverty line – all for doing a job mostly undertaken by people earning more than twice as much.
Unite national office Rhys McCarthy argued that in this case it was obvious bosses were abusing the apprenticeship brand to exploit young people – if you’re under 19 years old and classified as an apprentice, you’re only entitled to £3.40 an hour. If you’re older, for the first year of your apprenticeship you’re also on £3.40.
The advert wasn’t the only Subway sandwich artist apprenticeship to be posted on the official government database – as of writing, at least three others were on the site, with one branch in Gateshead offering eight different positions.
McCarthy said Subway’s advert for an apprentice ‘sandwich artist’, “stretches the definition of apprenticeship to breaking point. The multi-national sandwich maker is ‘looking more like a rip off artist.’
“After many years of campaigning for the return of genuine apprenticeships for young people, Unite welcomed the government’s levy to increase the number of apprenticeships, but this must not be used as an exploitation charter by unscrupulous bosses to hire young people on the cheap,” he added.
“If the government is serious about making apprenticeships work, than it must act to stop rogue employers using the apprenticeship scheme as a cheap form of labour. We certainly don’t expect rich multinationals like Subway to be exploiting young people in this way.”
It’s been nearly two years since the government pledged in 2015 to create 3m apprenticeships by the 2020. In 2017, figures showed that the government has in fact been on track to realise this goal – in January, 780,000 new apprenticeship starts had been recorded since May 2015.
In the first quarter of 2016-2017, 155,600 starts were recorded – above the 150,000 starts needed to meet the 3m new apprenticeships goal.
But Unite has long argued that government targets risk placing an emphasis on quantity over quality – and a look at the latest figures proves this to be true.
Of the new apprenticeship starts recorded in the first quarter of 2016-2017, only 6 per cent were higher or degree equivalent apprenticeships, with the vast majority being level 2 (84,010) or level 3 (62,510). To put this into context, the Subway sandwich artist apprenticeship is classified as level 2, the lowest level classification.
Part of the government’s pledge to create 3m new apprenticeships was also to legally protect the apprenticeship brand. This, the government said, would “strengthen their reputation, help working people and ensure apprenticeships are recognised as a career path equal to higher education.”
Last year, legal protection for the label “apprenticeship” became a reality under the Enterprise Act 2016. Now, it is an offence for companies to use the term “apprenticeship” unless it is a legally recognised one that meets certain criteria.
But that doesn’t mean that the bar has been set high – the ‘sandwich artist’ apprenticeships meet this criteria.
It’s possible too that ‘sandwich artists’ are among the apprenticeships being counted as part of the government’s 3m by 2020 goal – the Department of Education could not be reached for comment in time to confirm.
Unite believes such standards are nowhere near good enough. The union has and continues to lobby for what it calls “gold-standard” apprenticeships – placements that are at least three years long and offer real transferable skills leading to decent, well-paid jobs at the end of the apprenticeship.
Such apprenticeships are common in unionised workplaces. Unite acting general secretary Gail Cartmail explained that quality apprenticeships in construction that Unite has experience with are “often the best deal a young person can have”.
“They don’t have to take out loans, they earn while they learn, and they should be covered by a collective agreement so they get the apprenticeship rate that’s negotiated by a trade union,” she said.
She went on to say that apprentices on such schemes have a mentor who is craftsperson or tradesperson who helps set them on a path towards a lifelong career.
“The apprentices we send out as ambassadors are solvent, they’re confident, they have a great relationship with the employers who have invested in them, and they have real job security,” Cartmail noted. “They usually have a car, often they’re saving for their own home even – good apprenticeships can be a great success story.”
Rhys agreed that unionised workplaces and quality apprenticeships often go hand in hand and he urged apprentices to join up.
“The best form of protection is for apprentices to get together and join a union like Unite,” he said. “Up and down the country trade union recognised companies are providing decent apprenticeships — the kind young people need with proper training in skilled occupations to help them get ahead in the labour market.”