Tony Stevens is a YWRC employment advocate, and educator; with a fierce interest in democracy done right.

Employment justice for young people – that’s what the Young Workers Resource Centre stands for.

Young workers in NZ are being treated like cannon fodder. They don’t know their rights and most of them don’t have access to our unions.

Clustered in the lowest paid jobs, and without the agency to advocate for themselves, they are the first casualties in a precarious labour struggle where wage theft is endemic and bullying is the norm.

In the absence of major legislative change, the Young Workers Resource Centre has a solution. It’s simple yet vital – we educate young people. We teach them about employment law, about unions – and about power. We give young people access to employment justice and we keep their employers on notice.

Dylan Garrett, a 22 year-old working at a food processing plant, was being bullied by her manager. He would force her to do work she wasn’t trained for, in unsafe conditions. He berated and belittled her when she inevitably failed to meet his expectations. She tried raising the bullying with her employer, but in retaliation she was bullied even more. It got so bad her mental health plummeted and she self-admitted herself to a mental health inpatient unit. The employer then dismissed her for medical incapacity.

Daniel Baird (19) works in a Hamilton café. His contract doesn’t specify whether he’s casual or permanent and his employer changes his hours whenever he feels like it, without giving Daniel any notice. His co-workers are being treated just as badly – a 16 year-old dishy is still being paid the starting out rate despite having worked there since he was 14. None of them learned about their rights at school.

At another Waikato café, Anna was refused a summer job after telling the manager she was eight weeks pregnant. These are not isolated incidents.

Young people become scarred by their experiences and disengage from the workforce, suffering a wage penalty from unemployment and under-employment that spans their careers, and compromises their ability to buy a house or have children.

Left unchallenged, wage theft has mutated into a virus that has infected industries populated mostly by young people.

Workplace bullying has deep, devastating psychological impacts that cannot be divorced from New Zealand’s shameful youth suicide statistics.

Action to prevent exploitation is largely absent. The legal and regulatory infrastructure is failing to ensure compliance with minimum laws. Employers treat legislation as if it were merely a suggestion. Unions are spread too thin to organise in wild west industries (like retail and hospitality) where wage theft is a business model. Young workers are isolated and picked off. All of this is permitted to perpetuate largely because young people are not taught about employment rights and collective action.

Many of you know the work we do. We visit schools and educate young people on employment relations through the lens of the labour movement. Our schools are key arenas for the transmission of political, economic, and social ideas. So we work to ensure that our ideals, the ideals of the union movement, are included in this fertile period of a young person’s transition into adulthood.

We communicate to young people when they are at their most malleable that as workers they are creating their employers wealth, that they should have power in their employment relationships, that collectively they are stronger together, and that the union movement is responsible for many of the entitlements we take for granted.

Without this perspective, the education system is skewed towards enterprise, a paradigm that reinforces the individualisation of the labour market and exacerbates inequality.

This is about promoting genuine economic justice. Teaching about unions and rights-at-work is a basic but fundamental intervention in the process of mitigating wealth and income inequality.

Another part of that equation is access to representation. We provide this to young workers who have nowhere else to turn to, that work in industries and companies where the buffer of union strength is absent. They come to us with stories of wage theft, of bullying, of unfair dismissal, of discrimination.

Benny, a roofer, was fired under a 90 day trial because he has diabetes. He had nowhere to go so he came to us. We raised a PG which the employer ignored, so we took it up with the Human Rights Commission and applied to the Office of Human Rights Proceedings for legal aid. Benny was successful and his employer was made to realise the error of their ways to the tune of thousands.

But for every Benny we help, thousands more injustices go unchallenged.

YWRC aims to operate nationwide by 2025, but currently only young people in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty have access to this service. Earlier this year I visited Central Otago and empowered over 700 students in some of the most isolated places in New Zealand.

Right now we are working hard to expand into Auckland and establish an educator role to service the 87 secondary schools and 130,000 students in the region. Both of these areas are prime targets for expansion and we have support from local community and union officials.

A small team of activists and volunteers keep the YWRC running. A third staff member hired for the first time this year made a huge difference to our capacity.

With an Auckland educator added to our ranks and discussions in motion to establish more educators and legal advocates, our capacity as an organisation will balloon.

But the challenge is, unsurprisingly, funding.

We are asking you to dig deep, donate the price of a coffee, talk to your mates, your union officials, your colleagues, your membership, whoever it is you need to talk to, and say to them:

“We need to support the Young Workers Resource Centre. What they do gives young people access to employment justice. They are supporting workers that we cannot and whom no one else is. It is our responsibility to support them.”

We could do so much more with your support.

Like a precarious worker who finds a job with a permanent contract, we would have the security to plan for the future.

Help us and Young Workers Resource Centre can be a workers movement that will change the way young people engage with social issues, employment, and unions.

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