Young workers: know your rights

Bringing trade unionism to the young involves addressing the changing nature of work

More than a quarter of children in work are too tired to do their schoolwork because of their jobs, according to Class Struggles, a report published by the TUC earlier this year. Based on a MORI survey, the report showed that as many as one in ten children with a job admitted to missing school in order to do paid work. It also revealed terrible instances of low pay, with a third of schoolchildren earning no more than £2.50 an hour. Most worrying, however, was the damaging effect that working excessive hours had on the performance of children in school.

And the situation is little better for students who continue into further and higher education. The additional strain of growing student debt combined with the introduction of tuition fees means that as many as a million students are employed over the course of a year. Many work in poor conditions - for example, in bars, fast-food restaurants or the rough end of retail - where they desperately need a union. Given the low level of union recognition in these areas of work, students have little protection from unscrupulous employers.

The many examples of how working schoolchildren and students are poorly treated illustrate the need for trade unions to engage with young people as soon as they come into contact with any form of employment. The TUC has already begun to develop ways to make the union movement appeal to younger workers. Since its launch, the TUC Organising Academy has trained more than 100, mainly young, organisers. Part of their training involves organising new groups of workers in "greenfield" sites, the sorts of workplaces with higher con-centrations of young workers.

However, as Class Struggles showed, schoolchildren also need to be aware of their rights at work, and of the role played by trade unions. The national curriculum's new emphasis on citizenship studies, which covers rights and responsibilities at work, provides an important channel to take such issues to both schoolchildren and post-16 students who, in the past, would have had little understanding of the value of trade unionism.

In order to develop this opportunity, the TUC has agreed to be a partner in a consortium led by the London Central Learning and Skills Council. This is one of several projects that will be managed on a national level over the next two years to examine ways to develop the citizenship skills of 16- to 19-year-olds, with the involvement of schools, colleges, employers, voluntary organisations and, crucially, trade unions.

But promoting employment rights among school pupils is only one aspect of the TUC's work with young people. Working with the National Union of Students and the National Association of Student Employment Staff, the TUC is deve-loping guidance material that can be distributed through colleges and universities so that students are aware of their rights and of the benefits of trade union membership.

Union initiatives aimed at students and schoolchildren are certainly valuable. Outside the education system, the most important element of organising younger workers will involve addressing the changing nature of work. For example, workers in traditional industries such as manufacturing or shipbuilding can see how the union presence directly affects the way they perform their duties, as well as their pay. The growing number of young people employed in new sectors of the economy may not see how frustration with management can be addressed through collective action. Many of these workers will be employed in smaller firms operating within the context of increasing globalisation. If they had a problem in the workplace, they would probably consider the most obvious solution to be to move job, rather than to seek the support of a union - and that is why it is vital that people are made aware of trade unionism while they are still at school or college.

This also means that future union campaigns will need to address globali-sation and social justice in order to relate to young people. Crucially, we need an approach that puts organised labour at the heart of any strategy to take on globalisation. A major aim of the trade union movement is to inject a social dimension into the globalisation process: the challenge in attracting more young people is to link union organisation in the developed world with raising labour standards in the developing world. In an economy where large multi- nationals can relocate not just their production, but their marketing, accounting and even design functions, a strong union movement in only one part of the world is not enough. And young people, more than any other group, are all too aware of this. They understand that the world is moving closer together, which makes them sceptical of claims that it is possible to improve employ- ment conditions in one country without addressing labour standards across the world.

With its work in schools and on student campuses, the TUC is trying to educate a new generation about the role and value of trade unionism - not just about how unions can help them and their fellow employees, but about how unions can be a force for improving conditions across the world. The challenge for young people is to join us in that goal.

Raj Jethwa is TUC organising officer

Natfhe Youth Initiatives

The university and college lecturers' union is developing a positive approach to recruiting young lecturers. It is highlighting employment and professional issues that affect younger members of staff in particular, and encourages its branches to monitor their age profile. It is:

- making a concerted effort to recruit part-time lecturers, many of whom are of younger staff;

- offering special membership rates for lower-paid staff;

- planning a Postgraduate Charter for those postgraduates moving into teaching;

- piloting a newsletter for young members;

- asking branches to set up "Introducing Natfhe" sessions for potential young members during inductions for new staff.

GPMU Youth Initiatives

The Graphical, Paper and Media Union has adopted various strategies in its attempt to target younger workers, including:

- basing its youth section on the national union structure and organising a Youth Committee and Youth Conference;

- piloting a "talent-spotting" scheme, focusing on promising young members with the potential to become activists and developing those people;

- improving the links from the youth section into the national section, to prevent prominent young members being "lost" once they leave the former. The idea is to think "deeper not wider" and co-ordinate its branches and officers to this end.

Unifi Youth Initiatives

The finance union Unifi has launched a project to re-energise its young worker structures. Major elements include:

- a relaunch conference entitled "24 hours in November" with guest speakers and a theatre group introducing interactive participation techniques to build confidence among the members;

- a national steering group involving members from all regions, which has a mission to "promote the effective recruitment, inclusion, representation and organisation of young finance sector workers within Unifi";

- the development of training for young members to assert new agendas within the union.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot