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Gareth Forest

Reaching out to young workers: Sheffield community walk

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In August, the TUC’s young activist network developed the Summer Patrol into an ongoing community outreach to young workers in precarious jobs. Here’s what UNISON’s Amber Taylor-Smith learned.

Following our Organising 101 training on 10 August, we went out into the community to put our new-found skills into practice. Focussing on the hospitality industry, where we had previously gathered data about workplace issues and had text conversations with migrant workers, we took the Summer Patrol format to go chat to young workers in their workplace. Here’s how it went.

On the evening of 13 August, a group of us young activists put our specialised 1:1 training into practice. We adapted our techniques, using a casual approach to identify with our peers in their workplaces rather than the previous linear questionnaire. We didn’t just want to collect data, we wanted to create allies, identify leaders and instil hope.

Small groups of activists in our TUC branded clothing approached those working in hospitality, asking for just 5 minutes of their time (although when issues arise, we take as long as needed). We want to know what it’s like to work in this company, what’s ticking our peers off, but most importantly, what we can do about it.

What we found –

Firstly, it’s important to note that all interviewed seemed to enjoy their job. They enjoyed the customer facing roles that hospitality offers, the tips, the sense of family and community and this came across in each interview that I conducted. But that doesn’t mean to say that work is all sunshine and roses – it rarely is.

Personally, I think the most alarming data we collected was that not even one of our interviewed peers was a member of a trade union. When asked why, some replied that they didn’t see the point as working in hospitality was just a stop gap while they studied. Regardless of your contract, how long you’ve worked for a company or plan to do so, whether this is your career, or you work to support your studies, trade unions are there to improve your quality of life at work – a place where we spend on average 1/3 of our time.

A staggering 30% of interviewees are on zero hours contracts, which most didn’t seem to mind. These workers tended to be students and enjoyed the flexibility that the contract offers and fits nicely around university, coursework and exams. This is all well and good but when asked about their rights as employees on these contracts, there seemed to be a limited understanding of the legalities. Most didn’t know that they are still entitled to holiday pay and sick pay, that is worked out as an average of the hours worked per week over the past 12 weeks. We provided cards with statutory rights to keep in their wallets, educated the best that we could and offered to provide further support over a cuppa if needed.

One poignant issue that arose in an interview was racism in the workplace. Hospitality establishments tend to have a more diverse workforce than some other sectors – workers come over on exchanges, offer multiple languages to engage with international clients and a wide range of skill sets. One interviewee noted that she had witnessed an episode of racism within the workforce. This was just on the customer facing team, and I’d be interested to learn more about the experience of BME employees behind the scenes. In the future, when patrolling the hospitality industry, it would be useful to be able to access the porters, the cleaners, launders, chefs, as opposed to just those working on the frontline.

Overall, this mini-patrol was a great success. We accessed workers in establishments that were previously out of reach. We identified common themes in these workplaces. But most importantly, we were able to utilise our training to organise efficiently, to connect with our peers and bring our message to those who need to hear it most.

The Summer Patrol has truly kicked off, a pilot scheme in the UK engaging Young Members and spreading the word of the good fight. It’s been a huge learning curve for me as a Young Members’ Officer, offering invaluable training, experience and sharing of best practice in a wonderful network of passionate young trade unionists. I went into my role within my branch as most do, with the best intentions, but often lacking the confidence, techniques and innovation to engage our peers. We want a movement, we want change and the Summer Patrol has acted as a springboard in my activism, giving me the confidence to deliver on my ideas.