When I originally pitched this article, I had anticipated that COVID-19 would present new challenges that called for entirely new approaches to organising workplaces. For instance, organising a workplace is usually more productive when you can have political conversations in person in order to create collective demands to level against your employer. Living in a time of self-isolation has meant that the use of online avenues to organise have been necessary in the face of the current issues posed by the pandemic, which workers have bore the brunt of. What I did not anticipate was the more critical engagements with unionism that would arise and the surge in rank and file organising that has ensued. COVID-19 is not the specific reason we need a Young Workers Centre in New South Wales – it has merely rendered existing unfair structures such as the casualisation of the workforce that affects young workers more visible. The importance of young workers being able to access resources that truly engage them in the union movement is now more fully realised.
The goal of a Young Workers Centre, at its core, is to recognise the necessity of providing specific resources on organising the workplace, legal advice and tailored education to young workers. On top of this, a Young Workers Centre can reach out to the next generation of workers through visiting schools in order to empower them against exploitation. Currently in Australia, Young Workers Centres have been established in Victoria, South Australia and most recently in the Australian Capital Territory. With the 2016 launch of the Victorian Young Workers Centre, then coordinator, Keelia Fitzpatrick stated that the centre would address a gap in support available for young workers, citing an analysis undertaken, which indicated that more than half of young people seeking legal assistance about their workplace were being turned away due to lack of dedicated services.
In NSW, just as any other state in Australia, young workers make up a large percentage of the hospitality and retail industries. Just this year, it was reported that hospitality giant, Merivale, had underpaid a largely young workforce to the tune of $126 million. Merivale’s exploitation of workers does not exhaust the problems that young workers face. Indeed, many hospitality and retail groups have been embroiled in similar court claims and there are also those smaller groups who slip under the radar. The young people who work in these industries in NSW have not been provided adequate and dedicated resources or platforms to organise their workplace. Court claims against businesses who underpay or mistreat their staff are effective to a point but there must be particular avenues in place in order to affect meaningful change for young workers. There is also the issue of the disproportionate exploitation that young apprentices in all industries face which has not received proper, tailored attention thus far.
This is not to say that the current model of existing Young Workers Centres around Australia do not need improving themselves. As NSW does not have one yet, we are in a unique position to demand an effective model, reshaping them to better support young workers. There is a tendency for these centres to follow a model that focuses on recruitment and individual servicing. While it is important that young people join their union, the focus on recruitment and individual servicing ignores the question of why young people should join their union. We want young people to be critically and ideologically engaged in the union movement, so we should be emphasising the importance of rank and file activity in unions over the union’s own activity. Ultimately, the main goal of a union is not what it can do for its members individually but rather what it can allow its members to do through collective organising. A Young Workers Centre in NSW has the opportunity to provide a very unique and crucial engagement with young workers that could really change the way unions operate in NSW.
So this leaves a very important question: what should a Young Workers Centre in NSW look like? The Young Workers Centre in the ACT, which first launched in 2019, provides an excellent case study for a centre that NSW should be striving for. Crucially, they are largely campaign based. In one of their first campaigns, they discovered that 77% of students who worked on campus were not getting paid the correct wage. It was through having conversations with students about the importance of organising and giving them the tools to do so that allowed these young workers to level demands against their employers.
Just last week, they set up Young Workers COVID-19 Response, a weekly online discussion group aimed at developing strategies to call for an evictions ban at the Australian National University and the University of Canberra for students living in residential halls. It is this deep connection with what union organising is all about that I want for NSW. It is this emphasis on connecting young workers that I imagine a Young Workers Centre in NSW would have to centre in its work for it to be a meaningful contribution to the union movement. What a Young Workers Centre in NSW should centre in its mission is facilitating the empowerment of rank and file organisers in the struggle against exploitation and engaging young workers with specific resources that are tailored for them. However, it must also realise the importance of a generation of union minded young workers to the entirety of the union movement.
Most importantly, a Young Workers Centre in NSW should be focused on the way young workers can contribute to the strategic direction of unions. An ideal Young Workers Centre should be training and educating young people, but ultimately following their lead. A new Young Workers Centre in a time where people are becoming more critical of the way unions currently operate has the possibility to create a new generation of unionists who are not just simply members of their unions but are more actively involved in organising workplaces.