LRD Booklets December 2007

Young workers - a guide for union reps


The outlook for young people going into the labour market has changed and is about to change even further. The number going into higher education has risen substantially, but so too has the number of students looking for work to help pay their way. There is also renewed government emphasis on vocational and work-based learning as well as plans to further increase the role of apprenticeships, and the proposal to raise the participation age in education or training from 16 to 18. This will mean further change over the next few years.

Unions are taking these changes on board and stepping up their organising work among young workers and working students, as well as building up their structures and resources. This is essential for the future of the trade union movement and for young workers who can easily be exploited despite the legal protections available.

The Age Equality Regulations, introduced in 2006, have given workers new rights not to be discriminated against on grounds of age, but there are exceptions to this, in particular lower pay rates based on the National Minimum Wage. And evidence gathered by the Employers Forum on Age (see Chapter 2) suggests that the outlawing of discrimination has yet to be fully followed through in many workplaces.

A survey of 1,000 young workers aged 18-34 by Unite T&G confirms a drift towards low-paid, poor opportunity jobs in an increasingly casualised economy, “spreading insecurity among a new generation of workers”. Half of the participants in the survey felt that employers exploit younger workers, and more than a third said they are poorly paid for the job they do. More than two-fifths found it hard to get interesting, well-paid work locally, while 22% said that their wages had been docked when they were ill. A quarter had experienced bullying at work and 17% had worked in unsafe workplaces.

There is a lot of work for unions to do in this situation and many are gearing up to meet this challenge. Activity and organisation by young members themselves needs to be matched by union reps of all ages, ensuring that from the moment they enter the workforce the needs of young workers are addressed. In this way the unions can also hope to engage and recruit a new generation of members and activists, securing a stronger future for the union movement itself.

Employment by sector: 16- to 25-year-olds

% of workforce % of 16- to 25-year-olds
Agriculture and fishing 13.2 0.98
Energy and water 11.6 0.68
Manufacturing 12.2 10.19
Construction 15.5 7.33
Distribution, hotels and restaurants 31.4 38.23
Transport and communication 11.7 4.78
Banking, finance and insurance 14.7 13.82
Public administration, education and health 9.6 16.00
Other services 21.8 7.84

Source: TUC, Young at heart?

NB. Differences in employment law and arrangements for young workers exist between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and it has not been possible in this booklet to reflect them all. More detailed information on employment law matters can be found in other LRD publications particularly the annual Law at work and Case law at work series.