Earlier this year, the TUC Young Members' Conference celebrated its 30th anniversary. In three decades, the industrial landscape has changed a great deal, and with it the fortunes of the trade union movement. After a long period of declining membership, union density is now broadly stable. Yet despite hundreds of new recognition agreements signed by unions over the past five years, only one in ten 16- to 24-year-olds is a trade union member.
There are good reasons for this. Young people are more likely to change jobs than older workers, so even if they join a union, there is a significant chance they will move to a job where there is no union presence. Moreover, younger workers are concentrated in sectors where union density is particularly low - mainly the retail and hotel and catering sectors. In contrast, union density is highest in sectors that employ the lowest proportions of young people
Unions have always tended to view young people, especially those of school age, as the workers of tomorrow rather than today. The reality is that employment is a fact of life for most young people - and it starts at an early age. More than 70 per cent of 11- to 15-year-olds find employment, yet their rights at work are far from clear. There are more than 170 local authority by-laws, 15 acts of parliament and 16 international conventions governing employment for under-16s, and teenage workers around the country are subject to very different rules with varying levels of protection.
Teenagers need protection at work as much as anybody else. A recent study showed that more than a quarter of 10- to 16-year-olds feel their studies suffer because of the long hours they do in paid employment. And three years ago, 14-year-old Ryan Pettigrew was killed delivering papers on his bicycle. His employer, a West Midlands newsagent, had sent him out on a round including a main road with a 60mph speed limit. Ryan was working without a permit and, after his death, the local authority discovered that the shop was not legally allowed to employ any children.
After sustained campaigning by trade unions and children's organisations, the government has agreed to look at creating one child employment law that would replace the mass of existing legislation, and to consult on the creation of a registration scheme for children to ensure that employers comply with the law. These significant steps prove that trade unions are fighting and winning on behalf of the young workers, and they give unions the chance to reach out to that new generation of workers. For example, as part of citizenship studies, young trade unionists, trained by the TUC, will be in schools this autumn explaining the role of trade unions and how young workers should expect to be treated at work.
With more young people in paid employment than ever before, raising awareness of employment rights among young people has never been more important. Yet it is just as important to convince young people that they need to join a trade union to be properly protected. This can only be done by proving that unions are relevant to them and will make a real difference to their working lives.
Raj Jethwa is TUC policy officer for youth and regional affairs