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Student Workers Have Rights

As a result of several decades of attack on education funding in the UK, where there are now no living grants, no free education and ever lessening public funding and enormous tuition fees, a lot of students, probably including yourself, are forced to enter the labour market and get a job.

In recent years the number of young people at work has increased dramatically. The rise in the number of working students has been particularly sharp – between 1996 and 2006, the number of students in full-time education who supported themselves through paid work grew by 50%. Employment for young workers is heavily concentrated in industries and sectors where staff turnover is high, wages are low and conditions are – to put it mildly – not good. According to a Trade Union Congress (TUC) study, young workers account for nearly 40% of the entire workforce of the hospitality sector (hotels and restaurants). This includes nearly 250,000 working students.

Throughout my time as a student I worked (long hours) for Superdrug in Egham. During my time there we had our wages cut by 25%, our tea break time was sliced in half as well as the amount of holidays we were entitled to. This is fairly common experience, particularly for young people in work. Because many bar workers are part-time or student workers, we sometimes let management mess us around because we won’t be in the job too long or we’re only doing it to earn spare cash. It shouldn’t be that way; all workers – full-time and part -time, student or not – are entitled to decent wages and a safe workplace.

I believe the situation for young people in work is scandalous. I think the only way to change it is for us as young workers to get organised and fight back. Many of the basic rights we take for granted in this country were won because working-class people, organised in trade unions, fought for them.

That means it’s always worth knowing exactly what your legal rights on key issues are. This way you can make sure that, at the very least, your boss isn’t treating you illegally. These will generally be about your wages, your contract-type, the amount of hours you work and other rights e.g. health and safety. The Students’ Union is running an awareness raising campaign – keep an eye out for our ‘your rights at work’ posters.

It’s also worth joining a union even if your workplace isn’t that bad, or even if you really get on with your boss. Obviously, not all bosses are ruthless, calculating robbers. Some are perfectly pleasant human beings. But their position as a manager means that when it comes to the crunch, cutting that corner on health and safety, upping your hours, cutting your wages or sacking you altogether will come before what is good and right for you. Most people earn a living by hiring themselves out to an employer who pays them a wage. If you work for a wage, you’re a worker. You could be a plumber, a bar worker, a trapeze artiste or a teacher, but you’re still a worker.

Trade unions around the world have led inspiring campaigns that have helped young workers stand up to some of the most exploitative corporations on the planet. In New Zealand they ran a ‘Supersize My Pay’ campaign.  In 2005/6, the Unite union in New Zealand ran a campaign aimed at organising young workers working for high-street fast-food and coffee chains such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC and Starbucks. The “Supersize My Pay” campaign saw the first strikes of Starbucks workers anywhere in the world, and eventually succeeded in winning significant wage increases for workers across a variety of workplace – including the abolition of the youth-rates of the minimum wage. The campaign showed that when workers see trade unions as tools for helping them fight for concrete change in the workplace and society – rather than as providers of services – big victories are possible.

SURHUL is running a campaign around your rights at work and how you can get organised if your boss is treating you badly – get in touch president@su.rhul.ac.uk !

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