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Britain’s young workers demand better

With the Unison national delegate conference 2024 getting started and just 16 days to go until the general election, RUBEN BRETT sets out what young workers need from an incoming Labour government

FOR young workers in Britain, a change of government could offer a much-needed reset — a chance to sort out the basic issues: our low wages and wage inequality, our crumbling education system and national infrastructure, our country’s complicity in war and genocide, and the pressing need for a just transition to deal with the climate crisis.
 
Materialists understand that only a Labour government can do the job. But will Keir Starmer deliver as prime minister? Don’t hold your breath. An incoming Labour government will have to be pushed every step of the way to fulfil its promises and to go further to deliver what we need.
 
The Labour manifesto has made a few positive commitments such as ending zero-hour contracts and fire-and-rehire. However, these are tied to a promise to consult with business which could lead to the policies being watered down. We need better from a Labour government.
 
We need an end to the systematic wage discrimination that denies many young workers a “living wage,” with 18 to 20-year-olds only being entitled to £8.60 and under-18s (or apprentices of any age) only getting £6.40 per hour for the same work as a 21-year-old employee.

Workers of all ages are feeling the brunt of the cost of living (or cost of profits) crisis, and those under 21 or in apprenticeships don’t get cheaper rent or cheaper food to compensate for the shortfall.

Young workers demand investment in our childcare and education system. For young parents, childcare is often unavailable or prohibitively expensive. We need fully funded universal childcare, with properly paid caring staff.
 
As the National Young Members Forum Motion 17 (Maternity Pay and Related Parental Rights) highlights, Britain’s statutory maternity pay entitlement is among the lowest in Europe and this leaves young women in particularly precarious situations. Government must act to safeguard the financial independence of young women and ensure that working-class families do not fall into poverty as a result of having a child.

This also means scrapping the two-child benefit cap, something the Labour Party had promised until last year and which is supported even by arch-Tory Suella Braverman. The Labour Party leadership has kept up the blatant lie that there is “no money left” to do so, but has managed to find the money for an expanded military budget. This is simply not good enough.
 
For young workers who are students, as well as those seeking to retrain or continue in education, we need better than the current fees system that leaves both students and education institutions mired in debt. We need fully funded public education at all levels, free at the point of study and available to all who want it.

We need restored maintenance grants — for students from lower-income backgrounds these are urgently needed. We need a restored Education Maintenance Allowance for college students in England. So far, the Labour Party has dropped all its promises on education, but young workers will not drop our demands.
 
Shamefully, Labour’s current plan for getting NHS waiting times down hinges on simply getting current staff to see more patients out of hours. We need massive investment in training new staff, including restoration of the Nursing Bursary, and we need action to improve working conditions in the NHS to stem the outflow of staff to the private sector or Australia.

NHS workers, including many thousands of young Unison members, need a pay settlement that reflects their vital work and undoes the damage of a decade and a half of real terms cuts. We need an NHS that is properly funded, properly staffed and capable of meeting the needs of today and tomorrow — with no place for private profit. It must always be free at the point of use.
 
Young workers need assurances that an incoming Labour administration will stop weapons sales and aid to Israel, in compliance with Britain’s responsibilities under international law. Every pound sent to Israel or allocated to an expanded military Budget is a pound taken from our public services, as the National Young Members Forum Amendment 31.1 points out. Of course, it’s not just about the money. Increasing militarism makes our world less safe.
 
We are now being told we could face the return of conscription. The Labour Party has rightly derided the Tory “national service” scheme as a costly vanity project, but we are still waiting for a clear promise that Labour will not introduce any form of conscription. Young workers need to be able to know that we will not be pressed into service in an imperialist war for the benefit of big bosses.
 
We need any incoming government to take real steps to cool global tensions and build new partnerships with the developing world and particularly China.

As the producer of 70 per cent of the world’s solar panels, the leading producer of electric cars, and a sponsor of green development efforts around the globe, China will be a key partner in the just transition Britain needs. Neither we as young workers, nor our country’s natural environment, can afford the ideological “decoupling” agenda and new cold war sabre-rattling pushed by many of our leaders.
 
Having dropped its £28 billion green investment pledge, the Labour Party will clearly have to be pushed hard by a united and broad-based movement to take any meaningful action on climate change and towards the just transition.
 
The Tories’ impending defeat gives us all something to smile about, but young workers must be ready to challenge the next government when it inevitably puts the interests of big business over ours.
 
Ruben Brett is co-chair of Unison’s National Young Members’ Forum.

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