This article was first published in the Yorkshire Post on 5 June 2019, and is reproduced here. The author is Gareth Lewis, who works for the TUC in Yorkshire & the Humber
Lindsay’s phone rings again as she squints at the list of house calls for the day. On the end of the phone an elderly client cries as she pleads for someone to come and help her.
Paul’s supervisor threatens to cut next week’s hours unless he stays late – so he misses his girlfriend’s antenatal appointment.
Jessie has to turn up 15 minutes before the shop opens every day – but doesn’t get paid for this extra time at work.
And Laura walks home in tears after yet another customer shouts at her.
These are everyday, unremarkable stories of work for many people. A lack of control over how work is done. Routine flouting of long-established legal rights at work – like the minimum wage. New contracts that put all the burden of being flexible onto the worker. And throughout all of this there is the sense of constantly being at the beck and call of others.
This is life at work for young workers on low and middle incomes aged between 21-30 – and it shows us the future of life at work for huge numbers of UK workers in the years to come, if nothing changes.
TUC research shows that young workers face the most insecure future in a generation. With 23 per cent of 21-30 year olds that we’ve spoken to telling us that they have struggled to earn enough to afford their basic living costs in the last five years.
We’ve heard that 20 per cent of young workers skipped a main meal in the last year because of a shortage of money.
Over half (55 per cent) of young workers said they would have to use a credit card, an overdraft or borrow from family and friends if they were landed with an unexpected bill of £500.
Nearly a quarter of young workers have pawned or sold something, and 22 per cent went without heating when it was cold in the last year. And 41 per cent of young workers have had to ask their family or friends for financial help.
The TUC exists to change the world of work, for these people, for good. So this week, we’re launching the TUC Summer Patrol to reach out to these young workers across South Yorkshire.
Thirty young trade union volunteers will spend a week surveying young people at work in town centres, retail parks and industrial units across the county. We’ll be asking questions about their experience of work, what issues they face, and talking about how trade unions can help.
This is a campaign designed by young workers for young workers. We’ve had a group of activists who are new to the trade union movement thinking deeply about the issues they faced in work, and why unions haven’t been present for them in this new economy. People are most willing to listen when they hear from their peers, which is why this campaign is focused around young trade unionists speaking to young workers about rights and work, what they can achieve together.
This is a new, innovative project for the UK, and we’ve brought together our unions from across the movement with support and volunteers. Because they recognise the importance of turning the tide for young workers.
But whilst it’s new for us, getting out and talking to young workers face to face isn’t a new idea. We’re borrowing this concept from the Norwegian trade unions, who have successfully run a Summer Patrol scheme for 30 years.
In doing so they’ve raised awareness of rights at work, reported labour law violations to their Labour Market Authority, and raised young people’s expectations of what work should be, and their right to be treated with dignity.
In a trade union first, we’ll also be combining this with the latest digital organising technology from the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders campaigns in the US, to bring people on a journey to union membership.
There’s no replacement to speaking to young workers face to face, but by reacting to technological trends, and adopting the latest tools, we can break down the barriers that unions face in meeting these young workers in the first place.
So strong unions could be a big part of winning a better deal for today’s 21-30s year olds. But just 6.3 per cent of 21-30s in the private sector are members of a trade union. That’s not because their experience of work is positive – nor is it because young workers are stupid. It’s because unions haven’t been present and effective in their lives at work, as work has changed – and it’s up to unions ourselves to fix that.
Face to face conversations with workers is time and labour intensive, but as the biggest mass movement in the country, no one is better placed to mobilise their volunteers to reach out to young people than the trade union movement. And that is exactly what our Summer Patrol for Young Workers will set out to do.
The issues we’ve uncovered through our research are hallmarked by common themes: A lack of control, a lack of dignity, and a lack of recognition that we are all human. These themes lead young people to have consistently low expectations of work.
And if young workers don’t hear about trade unions, this is unlikely to change.
Because there are some things only unions can do: bringing workers together to balance the boss’ power with their collective power. Individuals raising concerns can be picked off or placated, but a group of workers determined to stick together can make their employer sit down and concede improvements to wages and conditions at work.
And, of course, collective bargaining wins better rights in individual workplaces, even if legal rights lag behind. That can bring real change for groups of workers – and it can act as a beacon to others, helping to normalise better treatment at work and make the case for new rights.
Building the power of young workers, so they can stand up and speak their truth to employers, the government, and society at large, is what we want to achieve. It won’t be easy, and we’ll face many barriers in our attempts to level the playing field, but our Summer Patrol this week marks a start.
The TUC’s Summer Patrol for Young Workers takes place from the 6th to 9th June across South Yorkshire
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