The recent move by Asda to pay under 18s the same hourly rate as older workers has opened a debate on whether there should be changes to the national minimum wage rules to equalise pay rates and whether youth pay rates can be legally challenged under new age discrimination legislation.
However, manufacturers currently employing under 22s - and paying them less than older workers - should not panic, say legal experts.
While the use of age bands (a key feature of the national minimum wage) may appear inconsistent with moves to ban age discrimination, the new regulations provide a specific lawful exemption enabling young workers to continue to be paid below the standard adult national minimum wage, says Paul Cotton, employment partner at Eversheds.
He adds: "Young people who are paid the national minimum wage within their age bracket will not therefore be able to claim discrimination on the grounds of age if a worker in a higher age bracket is paid more than them (although there could be claims if a person within the same age bracket is paid at a different rate).
"However, there are situations where claims under the age discrimination legislation could be made. First, the exemption does not cover workers who are too young to qualify for the minimum wage. Therefore, someone who is too young could complain of age discrimination if, unjustifiably, they are paid less than an older worker. Likewise, while there is nothing technically to prevent an employer from selecting a job applicant below the age of 18 in preference to an older person, to do so may render employers vulnerable to complaints of age discrimination if they are trying to keep a wage bill low by employing 16 and 17 year olds.
"Clearly, the age discrimination legislation is set to have wide-reaching implications, and employers need to review all policies extremely carefully in order to comply."