Unions highlight precarious situation of young workers

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Spanish trade unions have published several reports in 2004 highlighting the high level of precarious and unstable employment among young people, and examining the consequences in terms of insecurity and poor working conditions. This article outlines the main findings.

In 2004, trade unions have been calling attention to the high level of unstable and precarious employment among young workers. For example, the General Workers’ Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) states that this has consequences in terms of insecurity and poor working conditions, reflected in a high workplace accident rate (Juventud. Informe de siniestralidad,, UGT, Departamento Confederal de la juventud trabajadora. Madrid, 2004). The Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) has examined how young workers understand and experience this precariousness (Jóvenes: la nueva precariedad laboral. La experiencia de la precariedad laboral en los jóvenes españoles, CC.OO, Madrid 2004). This article examines the position of young workers, drawing on these and other sources.

Young people and precarious employment

In 2000, the temporary employment rate (ES0409104F) for all employees was 32%, compared with 64.5% for those aged 20-24, 44.6% for those aged 25-29 and 31.4% for those aged 30-34. In 2002, with an average rate of 31%, the figures for the younger age groups were 61.0%, 43.2% and 30.6% respectively. While it might once have been thought that from the age of 34 temporary employment rates move towards the average, between 2000 and 2002 the rates increased for the higher age groups, ie 35-39 and 40-44, from 24.5% to 26.6% and from 20.5% to 21.3% respectively. The hypothesis has been put forward that precariousness and insecurity are now being maintained for a high percentage of people as they get older, which would involve an increase in segmentation of the labour market and problems of social cohesion in the future.

Though it is important in terms of stability, the high temporary employment rate of the young is not the only issue. Another is the short duration of many temporary contracts, with a very high proportion being for less than one month. Also, there is a high employee turnover in the same jobs, as shown by the fact that each year only 300,000 or 400,000 jobs are created, whereas between 10 and 12 million contracts are entered into. In other words, a person is recruited several times in the same job or several persons rotate in the same job. This indicates that the jobs are far more stable than the official form of recruitment of the workers. However, in many cases the change of temporary contract is from one company to another or from one sector to another. These three characteristics suggest two conclusions: first, that young people are affected by greater precariousness than that really allowed by the labour law system (which indicates that companies are seeking to compete through flexible employment); and second, that the precarious employment's possible function during the early years of working life of providing a range of experiences before the definitive integration in employment is not being fulfilled, because the enormous flexibility prevents the relative stability that is required for learning.

The precarious situation of young workers today is thought by commentators to hinder their integration in employment. It is also seen as a barrier to social integration, because precarious jobs mean that workers do not have the normal path towards such integration - ie work, which provides not only an income but also an identity and symbol of 'belonging'. Several studies in addition to the trade union reports cited have dealt with this subject (see, for example, Crisi del treball y emergència de noves formes de subjectivitat laboral en els joves, Bernat Albaigés and others, Generalitat de Catalunya, Secretaria General de la Joventut, Barcelona, 2003).

Precarious employment and personal experience

The CC.OO study analyses the process of precarious employment in three groups of young people: those with a low level of qualifications; those with a medium to high level of qualifications whose jobs do not correspond to their training; and those with a medium to high level of qualifications whose jobs do correspond to their training. The study is based on interviews with young people in the three groups.

The study finds that those in the first group (young people with a low level of qualifications) has a very 'instrumental' view of work, and that the main feature they perceive of precarious work is the insufficiency and instability of pay. In other words, they see a job is precarious because of a lack of correspondence between the work done and the pay obtained. 'Precarious pay' is perceived as the inability to obtain certain important living conditions, particularly housing. Furthermore, these young people perceive that temporary employment has become a substantial element of the labour market for them. Even an open-ended contract is no guarantee of stability. Furthermore, they perceive that any promotion, and therefore professional consolidation, is seriously in doubt. Finally, they see their work as precarious, in that flexible working hours decided by the employer prevent them from living a suitable daily life.

Consequently, in this first group the 'social identity' of the interviewees is found to be based not on work but on contexts defined by the family or relations with their peers. However, because their income does not allow them to construct other 'life projects', particularly housing, it is becoming clear to researchers that the problem is not just the first transition from education to work but also the second transition, which involves autonomy based on a trade or profession. As the CC.OO study states, 'having a job is no longer a platform of access to the remaining rights of citizenship'.

The second group (young people with a medium to high level of qualifications whose jobs do not correspond to their training) also define precarious employment firstly in terms of poor income, and they also perceive a situation of unfairness with regard to the training they have received. The lack of connection between training and employment make the poor prospects offered by precarious employment more stark. However, this group still think that their training will allow them to get better jobs, because they feel over-qualified in their current ones. In other words, this group tendsto see precarious employment, and their low pay, as transitory. The employment contract is perceived differently than by the first group, because a stable contract is seen as being suited to their training.

The identification of the second group with their job is found to be ambivalent. Given current working conditions, their work cannot be a source of 'identity'. However, in terms of expectations they see the possibility of integration in employment in such a way that it meets their potential and structures their lives. However, other 'cultural dimensions' come into play and work is not the only important thing in their lives.

The third group (young people with a medium to high level of qualifications whose jobs do correspond to their training) show a relative satisfaction with their working experience, and they feel privileged to have jobs suited to their training. This connection and the existence of real possibilities of promotion allows them to feel that their jobs are far from being precarious. The element that most affects their job expectations is thus the type of employment relationship, which may lead to the fulfilment or frustration of their expectations: for example, interns have poor prospects and civil servants have good prospects of professional advancement. Understandably, work and profession are important in the 'social identification' of the members of this group.

In summary, the unstable employment of young people shows a wide range of situations, according to the research. For the first group it has become almost inevitable, for the second it can be overcome through the fulfilment of their legitimate expectations and for the third it is hardly a problem.

Commentary

The CC.OO study is useful in understanding that not all young people are in the same situation of precariousness. However, two unresolved questions may offer new keys to the problem.

The CC.OO study - and others based on statistical data - shows that youth 'is being prolonged' due to unstable employment. In other words, many people still have a precarious job after the age of 25, in fact many more than would be indicated by the type of contract (temporary versus permanent). This difficulty of making the second transition towards independent life may have consequences of several types: economic difficulties that cannot be overcome; a threat to the general pension system because these workers are contributing very little for many years; a threat to the professional qualification of many young people; and a possible crisis of social integration. Therefore, this problem affects not only young people, but the whole of society.

Furthermore, the group that will grow and has a very serious problem is the second of the three identified in the research (young people with a medium to high level of qualifications whose jobs do not correspond to their training). This group finds that, though training is important, it is not the solution to unstable employment. There is a need for suitable employment policies for the young. The whole of society must make a 'pact between generations' that allows the young people of today to enter adult life with more guarantees. Only if this is achieved will it be possible to solve both their problems and those of workers making the transition to retirement. (Fausto Miguélez, QUIT-UAB)

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