Tragically high levels of youth unemployment are destroying the social fabric of Europe but a new campaign by trade unions will help young people reclaim the rights taken from them by the economic crisis and the austerity that has followed – claim union leaders Eduardo Chagas, Ulrich Eckelmann, Oliver Roethig and Harald Wiedenhofer
Youth unemployment is arguably the most important challenge facing Europe today with EUROSTAT’s latest figures at 23 per cent for the European Union and 24 per cent for the eurozone. Head of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde has warned that high youth unemployment will darken Europe’s future, while Pope Francis has said we are facing an entire generation of young people lacking the dignity brought by work.
Some commentators claim that Europe is at the tail end of the financial crisis and again experiencing modest growth. However, if this is jobless growth or growth that is not reinvested in tomorrow’s workforce, EU policy-makers will be to blame for undermining social cohesion and the economic, productive and social security systems that are the basis for an integrated and competitive Europe.
Other commentators wrongly sideline youth unemployment as an exclusive issue for the countries with unemployment rates exceeding 30 per cent like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy or Ireland. Yet all countries typically have youth unemployment figures that are two or three times those of older workers.
Moreover, poor succession planning and a lack of will and active labour market policies to invest in young workers with skills or training needs is prevalent in all sectors with Eurofound reporting that 39 per cent of companies could not find staff with the right skills in 2013. If not reversed, this trend will be the ticking time bomb to flatten the continent’s future competitiveness and innovation.
A 2013 report commissioned by the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions confirmed that the food and drink manufacturing and processing sector – the continent’s largest manufacturing sector in terms of turnover and employment – could face a drastic labour shortage in 15 to 20 years if the sector is not made more attractive to young workers by improving the quality of jobs. In just a couple of years, the sector has experienced a drop of between 30 to 40 per cent of young employees between the ages of 15 to 24.
In 2012, a report commissioned by the European Federation of Public Service Unions projected that if Europe’s public administrations simply employed the same proportion of under-25s now as they did at the end of 2008 – when it was already low by comparison with the rest of the economy – more than 100,000 more young people would be in a job. On the contrary, public services have failed to focus on the recruitment of young workers – which, coupled with austerity policies – has alienated young people from public employment and perhaps more worryingly, from the public service ethos altogether.
For the service and skills sector workers that UNI Europa represents, poor job prospects for young people opens them up to exploitation in unpaid internships as a cheap – or even free substitute – for full-time work, or on zero-hour contracts with no guaranteed weekly hours and income. The United Kingdom Office of National Statistics reports that the number of 16 to 24-year-olds on such contracts has more than doubled since the start of the economic downturn.
In response to dead-end apprenticeships in Europe’s industrial sectors, industriALL Europe affiliate IG Metall – the Industrial Union of Metalworkers – launched Operation Übernahme to ensure that young workers in Germany would be retained on completion of their apprenticeships. Through an agreement by the social partners, this was eventually guaranteed; a breakthrough in a country where 50 per cent of all temporary workers are aged below 30.
A collection of personal accounts put together by the Swedish Transport Workers Union, an affiliate of the European Transport Workers’ Federation, puts names and faces to the struggle of young transport workers. Byron McGinley, a 30-year-old dockworker from the UK, recounts the breakdown of his relationship after being forced to move away from his partner and children to accept the only work on offer. A union delegate for the Unite union, Byron is engaged in a constant battle to defend the jobs of his workmates – even if they are precarious to begin with.
The injustice is that these young people are paying the cost of a crisis that they did not cause. Youth unemployment highlights that we are not at the end of the crisis. For this reason, six sectoral European trade union federations – together representing more than 30 million workers across Europe – pledge to take on the problem and reclaim the future of young Europeans that the crisis stole.
The European Federation for Building and Wood Workers, European Federation for Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions, European Federation of Public Service Unions, European Transport Workers’ Federation, industriAll Europe and UNI Europa will devote the next two years to pushing the EU institutions and employers to put youth at the top of their agenda and to building the capacity of their member trade unions to better organise young workers.
While the federations welcome EU initiatives such as the youth guarantee scheme, which ensures that all young people under 25 receive a good-quality, concrete offer within four months of leaving formal education or becoming unemployed, they maintain that stand-alone and under-resourced proposals like these are inadequate and that more must be done. On March 7 in Athens, the federations will launch their ‘Take back the future’ campaign at a UNI Europa youth seminar, and outline their demands of the new European Parliament and European Commission, and of employers.
Namely to: prioritise the creation of quality work and ensure the right of young people to decent jobs and fair pay and conditions is guaranteed; ensure that youth mobility within the EU is a choice and not a necessity for finding work by boosting social cohesion among Europe’s member states; put an end to the trend in increasingly precarious work as it is trapping young people in dead-end jobs and undermining the social security and health care systems at the heart of the European social model; ensure equal access to lifelong education – a key factor for better employment prospects and for Europe’s competitiveness and innovation amid technological and industrial change; respect social dialogue and uphold the right to collective bargaining as a means to ensure that collective agreements contain provisions that reflect the needs of young workers; stop the abuse of young workers as a source of cheap temporary labour through the misuse of internships and traineeships; skill young people to adequately address the radical changes that may transform Europe’s economies and societies as a result of climate change and resource scarcity and match investment in skills to investment in technologies. Enough of their crisis, ‘we are taking back our future’ will be the message.
Eduardo Chagas is ETF General Secretary, Ulrich Eckelmann is industriAll General Secretary, Oliver Roethig is UNI Europa Regional Secretary and Harald Wiedenhofer is EFFAT General Secretary