It’s widely known that young workers are at the sharp end of the labour market. Wales TUC labelled those on the sharpest end “Britain’s young core workers” and categorised them as workers who are:
1) Earning low pay
2) More likely to face pressures as working parents
3) Facing weak training and development opportunities
4) In precarious work
5) More likely to be overqualified for the jobs available
6) More likely to face harassment, including sexual harassment
A whopping 87% of these workers are in the private sector such as hospitality and retail, and are not in unionised workplaces.
It’s no coincidence that these workers face bottom-of-the-barrel conditions.
Evidence shows that workers in workplaces that recognise a trade union take home higher pay, better holiday and more flexible working hours.
Young members of trade unions see the greatest financial benefit, with workers taking home 33% higher wages than young workers who are not joined to a union.
Yet we know that Britain’s young core workers are less likely to be in a union.
These are the workers who can benefit from joining a trade union the most. By joining a union they could gain better pay and working conditions. They could join campaigns for safer workplaces like tackling sexual harassment and racism. They could understand more about the ways in which technology is changing the way we work and are managed. And they could be offered training and development that would revolutionise their career opportunities.
In July 2023, Wales TUC took inspiration from the Norwegian model “summer patrol” and piloted the scheme in Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil. The activity involved young trade unionists turning up at hospitality and retail workplaces, interviewing young workers about their experiences and informing them of their rights at work.
Over two days, we collected data from 75 workplaces and were granted access to young workers from 64% of those.
Over half of young workers interviewed were worried about debt and bills. The biggest issues identified were around low-pay, under-staffing, low career progression and harassment.
During the pilot, we saw first-hand the difference it made having young activists talking directly to young workers about their rights and benefits of trade unions. In Cardiff, not one single worker was a member of a trade union.
When asked, the interviewees understood the basic concept of a trade unions, but had not considered becoming a member in their current job. Some workers did not realise that trade unions were an option for them in their sector.
Our activists were able to break down these misconceptions, unpacking the view that unions act as an insurance style payment for “if something goes wrong”. Rather, the young activists were able to reshape membership to an investment in safer workplaces, development of your career, and the common goal to make lives better for all.
The young workers on our pilot programme came from across Wales, from a wide range of backgrounds, all with a drive to make a difference through sharing information and knowledge about rights at work.
Some were students working zero-hour contracts, others were working in the NHS. The key point was that it was young workers themselves who were leading on the gap in union density in retail and hospitality, talking to other young workers who they could resonate with and share information.
When speaking about the pilot, one of the participants said:
"We approached a retail store where the staff felt massively undervalued and felt a divide between them and management. What was interesting was that some of the staff did know about unions and their role in workplaces, but didn't realise they were entitled to one in their sector. It was good to chat to them and clear up this misunderstanding.
There were things occurring that were making things hard for staff, including late rotas. Whilst some of the staff were already knowledgeable about unions, our conversation felt like we were breaking down the barrier and some were now willing to join one."
During the interviews, workers often opened up about bad workplace practices they were experiencing. For example, one of the young trade unionists reported to the group at the end of the day:
“We spoke to a worker on a student visa who told us that they were never given a contract and were not given payslips. We informed them that they were entitled to this. There were also concerns around GDPR and it became apparent that they had not received any annual leave since starting the position in October last year.
“The biggest concern was that they were being paid £2.42 under the minimum wage since they began work. The worker was concerned about their visa but we were able to assure them that they were not to be exploited just because they were a student. They gave us their email address and they said they will be contacting a union to join."
Since the pilot in July 2023, Wales TUC has been building the foundations to turn the activity into a routine exercise for the Young Activist Development Programme.
Its incredibly exciting that we’re launching Newid! in 2024. The newly named programme will take place throughout the year and is the Welsh version of the Norwegian Summer Patrol model. It will be an opportunity for young workers to take part in direct action to mobilise for workers rights, and speak to some of the most vulnerable workers about the role of trade unions and how they support them with their jobs, careers and development.
Want to join us for our first session talking to retail and hospitality workers in Swansea in February? We’ll be providing training on minimum wage compliance, handling difficult conversations, and advocating for safety campaigns for workers in retail and hospitality.
To find out more information, or sign up go to: Newid! Reaching young workers in Swansea | TUC