Making an impact on youth

By Cecilia Locmant, ICFTU Online..., 073/990419/CL, 19 April 1999

On April 16 in Brussels, the ICFTU launched an awareness-raising campaign directed at the youth of the world (see OnLine 070). The future starts now—Join a union seeks to inform young people about trade unions and to encourage them to join. This campaign—vital for the renewal and ultimately the survival of the trade union movement—will do everything possible to reopen dialogue between two increasingly divided worlds. Because many young people are arriving later and later on the labour market, because they find jobs in sectors where there is little union representation and, to be honest, because the trade unions have not always let youth have its say, young people have a fairly negative image of the trade unions. Yet by the year 2000, just a few months away, more than half the world's population will be under 20 years of age and if economic trends continue, the young will more than ever be the first victims of unemployment, exclusion, and the casualisation of work. Young trade unionists from 36 countries attended the ICFTU's campaign launch. Many of them were in Brussels for a three days meeting to analyse their problems. As the situations they described vary so widely (it is difficult to compare the situation of Spain's over-qualified younger generation with that of, say, Brazil, where illiteracy is on the increase), ICFTU OnLine has decided to give an overview of the situation by region (Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia). This series of articles and portraits will continue throughout the week.

Europe: in and out of work (I)

The biggest problem facing Spanish youth is unemployment. Our generation is the best qualified, but it cannot sell itself. Silvia Ruiz Vital of the CCOO-Spain's youth committee is not alone in holding this view. The Portuguese, French, English, Czech, Lithuanian and Swedish representatives all expressed similar concerns. In Portugal, the level of youth unemployment is twice the average rate, while in Lithuania 35 per cent of young workers are unemployed.

The economic situation has made the young the first victims of the multiplication of precarious contracts and low wages. Johan David of the youth branch of the FO France explains: Not only do young people move from one job to another, they move from one status to another, making it very difficult for them to defend their rights. Unaware of the information available from the trade unions, many young people only turn to them when they run into difficulties with their employer. Europe's young trade unionists need to tackle the situation from several angles. In Spain, for example, the youth committee of the CCOO has published a free guide which it distributes in vocational training centres. It sets out various techniques for finding a job, gives an overview of workers' rights and describes the services provided by the trade unions. Marc Holding stressed the importance for the youth committee of the British TUC of fighting for a fairer minimum wage for young people. In France, the Force Ouvrihre is trying to reach out to these intermittent workers by adapting its services (it gives legal advice without any obligation to join the union) and its membership subscription (FF 35 per year). It has also submitted to France's Employment Minister a list of specific demands about making youth measures for employment more effective (concerning some 350,000 young people). Lithuania, which has recently opened its doors to foreign investors, has focused its action on the multinationals, known for exploiting young workers. Sergejus Glovackas explained how the youth section of the LPSS, Lithuania's national trade union centre, had campaigned to make these foreign employers respect collective agreements, and oblige them to translate them into the national language. Several of the young trade unionists also pointed out that for some young people the lack of future prospects drove them to turn to alcohol, drugs and crime. Another problem prevalent among the young is the particularly high rate of workplace accidents. In Spain, for example, 37 per cent of accidents at work involve young people. Trade union youth committees around Europe are determined to use this campaign to meet these challenges.

Lithuania: the dreams of youth (II)

In Lithuania, explains Sergejus Glovackas, the free trade union movement has a very short history. It dates back to the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of Soviet communist rule. Under the communist regime, everyone was a union member. Today, the number of members is falling year on year. His own organisation, which represents commercial workers, has seen its membership fall from 130,000 in 1990 to 10,000 this year. Today we have democracy and a free market economy, but we also have all the faults inherent to the paradise we have so much dreamt of. To give you just a few figures: in our country, 52 per cent of crimes are committed by young people aged between 19 and 25, and 35 per of the young are unemployed. Faced with poverty wages, many young people dream of leaving. Many others try to find a place in the sun, while working undeclared.

Thirty-year-old Sergejus is part of a team within his union responsible for the youth programme. The confrontation of new ideas and old traditions has sometimes led to almost comical situations. Sergejus explained that in order to attract more young people to the May Day celebrations he proposed organising a rock concert. This met with a lukewarm reception from another colleague, a member of the union for ....53 years. He had begun his career under Stalin, and thought the event should take the form of speeches, lasting a minimum of ... three hours.

Involved in the union movement since his university days, Sergius has learnt to negotiate and overcome these clashes between generations. He still feels highly motivated, and feels particularly encouraged by the support he has had from his colleagues in the more progressive trade unions of the North.

Czech Republic: the me generation (III)

Eva Sanovcova was a music and Russian teacher when the velvet revolution broke out in Czechoslovakia. For most of the citizens in her country, it was a time of high hopes. As a teacher, the Czech did not have such a rosy vision of her future, particularly when the government decided unilaterally to cancel Russian courses in favour of English. When it came to choosing between retraining or joining the trade union's international department, she didn't hesitate for long: I knew nothing about trade unions. I joined in 1991, to find a job, but that was a normal reaction at the time in a country such as Czechoslovakia. They were interested in me because of my language knowledge, particularly of English, even though I believe I do not know it well enough to teach it. Her knowledge of the educational world and her linguistic skills helped her move swiftly up the union hierarchy to become, at 30, the youngest officer at the TU Unios. Her age naturally led to her becoming involved with youth issues. As in many former communists countries, the membership of Czech trade unions is in rapid decline and recruiting young people is a question of survival. Privatisation and the distrust of new foreign investors of any trade union presence in their factories only help exacerbate the trend. As Eva explains, the task is very complex. Other than the lack of financial resources for finding more attractive ways of communicating with the young, the trade union is faced with a rise of individualism among the new generation. Today young people are very reticent about any form of organising. It is too reminiscent of the old communist regime. We are now seeing the emergence of the ‘me’ generation: ‘I will take care of myself, and the others will just have to do the same’. With limited means, the Czech trade union has to restrict its activities to an information campaign among its young members. But Eva knows that the rise of unemployment in her country means the young will be faced with more and more difficulties. Hence the need for international cooperation in awareness raising and information.