Cathy Bi: Let's offer young workers a better deal

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Youth are finding the story they were told about hard work is not quite true, writes Cathy Bi

The casualisation of the workforce is one of the many problems young people face. Photo / Getty Images
The casualisation of the workforce is one of the many problems young people face. Photo / Getty Images

Last year I spent six months being unemployed after graduating from Victoria University. After graduation, I had thought: "This is IT, finally after 16 years of schooling, it's time to find that amazing job."

So I started applying, and I was a little disappointed at how few entry jobs I could apply for. Nevertheless, I persisted. After 20 rejected applications, it was time for a reality check.

I thought to myself, this does not match up to the story I have been sold throughout my school life that if you just work hard in your studies, you will find a great job at the end. What they should have said is: "If you just work hard in your studies, get to know the right people, spend months as a 'jobseeker' (a euphemism for unemployed), spend a few years doing contract jobs, then you might get a good stable job - if you're lucky."

It's difficult being a young person in the labour market. About one in six Kiwis aged 15-24 who are looking for work are unemployed.

For Maori, the unemployment level is 38.3 per cent - its highest level since 1990. However, even those in work often face job insecurity. Casualisation of the labour force is becoming a norm with 42 per cent of casual workers between the ages of 15 and 24 in 2008.

Putting myself through varsity, most of my jobs were at the minimum wage or no more than a dollar above it. From 12-hour shifts at Farmers, to occasional doughnut selling where I would receive a txt message the day before asking me to work.

My experience and reflection led to my current (temporary) job with Caritas promoting Social Justice Week (September 8-14). This is a time for the Catholic Church and wider community to consider one particular social justice issue. This year, the focus is on youth unemployment and work. In researching the theme, I spoke to many young workers with different backgrounds and experiences of work. I was surprised by the number of young people, some as young as 15 and 16, who worked to support their family and themselves.

Some changes to employment legislation in recent years have affected young people, such as the 90-day trial period for new jobs and the starting out wage. These policies eroded the quality of the jobs available to young people like myself. We are seen as a source of cheap labour, easily replaceable.

While flexibility and compromises on wage is doable for young people who are supported by family, it is not sustainable when you're working hard to support yourself, your parents, siblings, your own kids and/or extended family.

Now we face a further round of employment changes, in the Employment Relations Amendment Bill, that don't exactly provide a warm welcome for young people into the workforce. The bill proposes that new employees in a workplace with a collective agreement are no longer required to be offered those conditions for the first 30 days of employment. So a young person, new to employment and to the world of negotiations, workers' rights and collective agreements will miss out on the chance to experience the benefits of a collective agreement before deciding whether to join the collective or not.

I personally never thought much about collective contracts and unions until recently. Yet the more I learn about unions, the more I am convinced of their importance for young workers who can be easily exploited in places such as fast food outlets and cleaning companies.

With the removal of the 30 days' collective agreement offered to all workers, it's easy for employers to offer young workers lower pay and minimum terms in an individual contract. But it's difficult for a young worker to then negotiate or join the union if they feel pressured by their employers not to, especially if they're on a 90-day trial period.

There have been so many changes to employment legislation in recent years. While some are good, often it has resulted in an erosion of protection for workers. The Government needs to consider the impacts of this legislation for the most vulnerable workers, especially for young workers in that first crucial job.

Cathy Bi is Social Justice Week co-ordinator for Caritas, the Catholic social justice agency.

Dialogue: Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- NZ Herald

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