Political commitment and innovative approaches are needed to create jobs and opportunities for young people around the world

Unemployment and lost hope

The continuing global economic crisis has hit young people especially hard. The ILO’s report on Global Employment Trends for Youth 2012 demonstrates increasing uncertainty in the labour market for young people. There are 75 million youth aged 15 to 24 who are unemployed, an increase of 4 million since 2007. In addition, the economic crisis has caused another 6.4 million young people to withdraw from the labour force, giving up the struggle to find jobs that don’t exist. This trend is particularly pronounced in the developed economies and the European Union.

For many, the only jobs they can find are in precarious conditions, with little job security and low pay. More than 150 million young people are living on less than $1.25 a day.

Indeed, the economic crisis has wiped out the opportunity for young people to make gains in employment, not just now but in years ahead. Long term unemployment affects both their skills and their future earning potential.

Political commitment and innovative approaches are needed to address the youth unemployment and jobs crisis.

“It is not so much joblessness as hopelessness that threatens our future,” said Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese opposition political leader and Nobel Prize recipient, during her landmark speech to the International Labour Conference in Geneva on 14 June.

“Unemployed youth lose confidence in the society that has failed to give them the chance to realize their potential, “she said.

She stressed the need to equip young people with the skills they need to enter the world of work.

“Vocational training linked to job creation is imperative if we are to safeguard the future by giving our youth the capacity to handle effectively the responsibility that will inevitably fall to them one day,” she said.

Growth in precarious employment

The global financial crisis has led many governments to impose austerity measures and deep budget cuts. It is the wrong prescription for economic recovery. Austerity has worsened the situation and destroyed jobs creation. In Spain, the austerity measures have created a growing sense of hopelessness and anger among young people who cannot find well-paying jobs. In Greece, the government pledged to cut the minimum wage and make labour markets more “flexible,” thereby further weakening job security.

Young people are paying a high price for a crisis created by the rich, and for budget cuts that disproportionately affect them. Precarious work is on the increase. Many young people are working long-hours, on short-term or informal contracts. They have low pay, little or no social protection, minimal training and no voice at work.

Young people in the European Union are four times more likely to be temporary employees, with 35.2 per cent on temporary contracts, compared with 8.9 per cent for those who are over 25 years of age.

In developing economies, a relatively high number of young people are likely to engage in unpaid work, supporting informal family businesses or farms.

Nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labour across the world. Of these, 5.5 million (26 %) are under 18, trapped in jobs they were coerced or deceived into taking and which they cannot leave.

These situations are also happening in the public sector, where precarious work is fast becoming common as governments cut jobs, privatise and outsource services.

Workers in precarious employment have little job security, work long hours for low wages, have limited control over workplace conditions, little protection from health and safety risks in the workplace, and less opportunity for training and career progression. Precarious workers throughout the world are frequently denied their right to join a union or bargain collectively precisely because of their employment status.

What are the solutions?

Investing in young people is an opportunity to build a better world and promote social justice. It requires steps to create jobs, improve employment conditions, and increase the earning power of young workers. Otherwise, as ITUC has pointed out, youth unemployment can be a “social time bomb.” The high and rising level of youth unemployment globally risks damaging the social, economic and political fabric of countries around the world.

Pledges have been made and adopted by the ILO to tackle the jobs crisis. The ILO proposes realistic and workable measures governments can take, with support from employers and workers, to address skills mismatches, improve apprenticeship systems and promote youth entrepreneurship.

Meanwhile, the UN, ILO and World Bank have established a Youth Employment Network (YEN). YEN’s goal is to prioritise youth employment on the development agenda and to exchange knowledge on effective policies and programmes to improve employment opportunities for youth.

In the OECD, the latest research indicates that in the short term, a priority must be to provide income support to unemployed young people. Another promising avenue is apprenticeship training for low-skilled young people. This could pay a”double dividend” – easing the transition towards employment and lower labour costs in return for a training commitment by the employer. Governments could provide subsidies to promote apprenticeships and to help displaced apprentices complete their training.

Thus, increasing public spending for higher education is a must. It offers young people a chance to escape poverty, since the probability of finding employment rises with higher levels of education. Improving public services makes a decisive contribution in the quality of life for everyone including young people.

Therefore, the global battle for quality public services is an important first step towards a strong economy, truly democratic public services and institutions, and justice in the workplace. We must fight to defend quality public services, and work together to make a better world possible.

Role of unions

Unions must have a clear strategy to address the global unemployment crisis facing young people. We must reach out to them in solidarity, and at the same time, reverse the worrisome decline in union membership.

Unions are not merely instruments to protect and improve workers’ living standards. They are also vehicles to influence, shape and change the political and economic order to benefit ordinary people.

Employers and neo-liberal governments continue to propose dangerous policies to “improve competitiveness and labour market flexibility” – code for higher profits, lower wages, and attacks on workers’ rights.

Unions must adapt to this challenge. We must restore our strength and membership, with a particular emphasis on increasing union membership among young people. This is no time for rigid policies towards organising.

Unions must give clear support to young people. We must show them that they are not alone. For example, we can involve student unions in the movement, supporting their work while also building a foundation for future organising. Young people believe in unions as agents for change, for a better life, but unions must change the way they manage and organise themselves in order to bring young people into the movement.

Unions are the strongest tool we have to protect the rights and interest of workers. Unions have the experience, resources and skills needed to advance economic and social policies that recognize the interests of working people. Unions also have direct access to governments through social dialogue on policies that affect employment and social protection.

Youth unemployment should be written large on the political agenda of all unions, in all industries and sectors. Unions must promote decent work for all. In Germany, for example, the youth section of IG Metall has launched a campaign “Operation Übernahme” to press companies to take on more apprentices. “Operation Übernahme” is also pressing employers to offer permanent positions to workers who have completed their apprenticeships.

Unions are the most powerful tool for working people to improve their lives. Only our unions have the power to successfully challenge the big money corporate agenda that threatens true democracy and social justice around the world. We can do it.


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