As economic crisis bites: we need a plan of action for young workers

Updated: May 22

By Tom Costello and Connor Rosoman, Socialist Alternative Political Committee

The ongoing coronavirus crisis has hit young workers especially hard. Before the pandemic, many young people were already struggling to get by, working precarious jobs, on casual, temporary or zero-hour contracts, in low-paying jobs in sectors such as hospitality. Covid-19, and the economic downturn now unfolding, has created massive uncertainty around our futures.

In the real firing line in this crisis are essential workers, many of whom had previously been deemed ‘unskilled’ by the Tories and capitalist class. Now they want to tell us how important our work is and order us back into work, while depriving us of safe working conditions. The scandal of NHS staff working without sufficient protective equipment, reusing disposable gowns, has been all over the news. This scandal extends beyond health. The lack of PPE, and of scope for social distancing measures is an issue that affects many sectors in society. But the crisis extends beyond just health.

The facts

Young workers are highly concentrated in those sectors that have been some of the most economically impacted: the hospitality, leisure and travel industries. Recent research has found that:

  • Workers aged 16-24 are twice as likely to work in sectors impacted most heavily by the lockdown (Resolution Foundation).

  • Workers under the age of 25 are two and a half times more likely to be in the sectors most affected (Institute for Fiscal Studies).

(Source: Institute for Fiscal Studies)

In 2018, 23% of 21-30 year olds already struggled to afford their basic costs of living. Now many of us will be forced to survive on 20% less than previously due to furlough payment. We will face this prospect for possibly several months still, and many will be asking the important question of how to pay for bills, rent, food and essential services in the meantime. Many will be worried about whether they will have a job to come back to at all. Some of those laid off or put on furlough will have been taken up as temporary staff in areas such as retail. But what about when those short term contracts end? Others are already struggling as a result of unemployment.

Many hospitality workers have already been made homeless, after layoffs have left them with no source of income before the lockdown had been announced. This is a warning to other young workers who may face a similar situation in the near future, with the possibility of further layoffs as the lockdown is lifted and the furlough scheme, which has provided minimal security, comes to an end.

This situation is the result of a system that puts private profit before the lives of the workers who make society run. As in 2008, the ruling class will try to make workers and renters shoulder the costs of this crisis. For young workers, this meant a decade of stagnating pay, a rise in precarity and casualisation, along with a spiralling cost of living in the private rental sector. We must ensure that this does not happen again! Our demands should be for no ‘return to normal’, precisely because the ‘normal’ was the problem! To defend our jobs, to fight for a real living wage and to ensure safety and security in the workplace, it will be essential that we get organised. Our future depends on it.

Ultimately, a lasting solution to the problems facing working people, young and old, will require a revolutionary transformation of society. A socialist government is needed, which will take decisive measures to ensure secure lives and work for all. This would mean making the large employers open their books to democratic inspection to elected workers committees. It would have to take the step of nationalising all big companies threatening layoffs following the Covid-19 outbreak, along with the banks, transport and utilities, under the democratic control of working class people. Only on this basis could we have a plan that would provide for society as a whole, with real living wages for all, and a mass building of high-quality public housing for workers and youth.

It will be essential to organise a mass movement, with the trade unions at the fore, linking up with the climate strike movement and all movements against capitalist destruction, to challenge the rule of the profit-hungry capitalist class. An important step towards this for young workers will be to take those first steps towards getting organised in the workplace.

Do we have the power to do this?

Many of us have grown up with little education on the powerful role that we can play. We have been told that, as workers in precarious sectors, we are disposable and have no real social weight. We need to reject this idea in the wake of Covid-19. It is our work that makes the world run! We can’t be conned into going back to work in the same conditions as before - insecurity, zero-hours, and wages that barely cover the rent.

Facebook groups like “Workers Speak Out Covid-19” show that workers are pooling their experiences together. Now more than ever, we need to talk to our colleagues about getting unionised, contacting our relevant unions about organising and preparing to unleash a wave of struggle against rip-off employers.

Even before the pandemic, important steps were taken by young workers to struggle for decent conditions. Hospitality workers for McDonalds and Wetherspoons have taken historic strike action in recent years, pointing a way forward for the rest of us. Since the crisis unfolded, Unite Hospitality workers have had remarkable successes. In March, thousands of workers were laid off and left facing destitution. But by getting organised and fighting back, many workplaces have been forced to reinstate their workers. Moreover, many have won full pay for their time on furlough, with a 20% top-up by their employers on top of the government payments.

The trade unions have an important part to play in fighting for young workers’ health and safety - this can start with campaigns highlighting legislation such as article 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, allowing workers to refuse to enter an unsafe workplace. This can be the basis for recruitment drives aimed at young workers, helping them get organised, as well as for walkouts and strike action where necessary. By doing so, they would be able to give a fighting lead for young workers.

Slowly but surely, us young workers will rediscover the need to organise ourselves. It will be essential for all of us to join this movement to defend our rights at work. If you agree with these ideas, get in contact with Socialist Alternative and get involved today!

We say

  • Work or full pay for all - fight any or all job losses. Maintain all contracts!

  • An immediate £12/hour minimum wage, as a step towards a £15/hr living wage for all - no to age discrimination for under-25s!

  • Full pay and safe working conditions for apprentices now!

  • Adequate PPE for all essential workers. The risk won’t disappear after the lockdown!

  • Workers’ control over closures and reopenings. Rank-and-file committees should be elected in workplaces, which would give them the power to decide when and on what terms they go back to work.

  • Capitalism offers no future for young people - time to join the fight for socialism!