As a young woman working in her company’s IT department, Jayne Muthoni Njoki was frustrated by what she says were employer attempts to push her around because of her youth and sex. But rather than quit her job, which she contemplated, she ran for a leadership position in her union, determined to work with others to make change on the job—and in society.
“I needed to fight for people whose voice can’t be heard,” she says.
Now 31, Njoki is the only young person in elected leadership in the Central Organization of Trade Unions–Kenya (COTU-Kenya), a Solidarity Center partner, and also president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)-Africa Young Workers Committee.
Njoki discussed how she is working through unions in Kenya and around Africa to educate and train young workers, especially young women, this week on the Working Life podcast, hosted by Jonathan Tasini (Njoki’s interview starts at 30:02).
Many Young Workers Work in Jobs that Don’t Pay Enough to Get by
With 71 million young people around the world unable to secure employment and 156 million more working poor because they have unstable income in the informal economy, the lack of jobs that pay living wages “is a global issue,” she says.
“We need to now think of the informal sector. When I talk of informal economy, that’s where you see the majority of young people are based.
“But unfortunately, we don’t think the informal sector is part of the economy.” Enabling informal-economy workers to have a voice through unions and associations is key to advancing their rights as workers—and once the informal economy is organized, “then everything will fall into place,” she says.
Through COTU-Kenya, which she says has encouraged young workers and women to become union leaders, Njoki also is working to create awareness among domestic workers about their rights and advance their efforts to become union leaders. Many are sexually harassed and assaulted, and fearful of speaking out about their treatment, she says.
Women workers and even women leaders “can’t come out because they are afraid, they are threatened. It’s not easy to come out and say ‘this is my right [to not experience gender-based violence on the job]’ as a young person, as a young lady.”
As she takes on the challenges facing young workers, Njoki is optimistic about the future. “So many ladies, even young people and young men, they are ready to listen and they are ready to work together so we can drive the agenda together.”
As the global community gets set to mark International Youth Day August 12, young workers around the world faced with a lack of decent jobs increasingly are joining with union movements and worker associations to challenge policies that do not promote an economy that works for all.
An estimated 290 million young people are jobless and another 150 million are working but impoverished. Many of these 150 million workers are employed in the informal economy, with no guarantee of steady income or access to the benefits of stable employment. As a result, generations of young people are at risk of lifelong poverty and little hope of social mobility. In fact, the ILO identifies precarious employment in the informal economy as the number one impediment to solving global poverty.
But young workers like Kymbat Sherimbayeva are standing up for their rights to decent work and collective bargaining. The Kyrgyzstan garment worker recently joined with some 200 co-workers, most of whom are between the ages of 18 and 25, to improve wages and safety conditions. With the help of trainings provided by the Garment Workers’ Union of Kyrgyzstan, with Solidarity Center support, workers at the factory formed a union, recognizing they could negotiate improvements with management much more effectively as a group than as individuals.
“We are stronger when we are together,” says Sherimbayeva.
Unions also are reaching out to young workers to develop the next generation of leaders. From Kenya, Jane Njoki Muthoni works to enable young women advance to union leadership positions through her roles as president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)-Africa Young Workers Committee and youth leader for the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU)-Kenya.
Njoki helps lead COTU Queens, which represents women union members between ages 18 and 35 who are in leadership and aspire to leadership. “As we all know, in trade unions, women are not represented well,” says Njoki.
Because young women are especially likely to work in low-wage, precarious and hazardous jobs, Njoki and the Young Workers Committee also are campaigning for Kenya to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions covering maternity leave and domestic workers.
“Domestic workers are primarily women, young women, who are frustrated at workplace, are intimidated, face sexual harassment. Our agenda is to make sure that our voices are heard. This movement makes sure that it protects the rights of young women, the rights of young workers in society,” says Njoki.
Elsewhere, young workers are mobilizing in vast numbers to challenge laws and policies that would deny them the ability to attain good wages and stable jobs. For instance in Peru, after lawmakers in 2015 rammed through a law that reduced salaries and benefits for workers under age 25, tens of thousands of young workers and their allies organized meetings with workers across industries and marched in a series of massive protests. Their efforts resulted in the law’s nearly immediate repeal.
Just as unions recognize that young workers represent the single most effective bulwark against economic and social inequality, more and more young workers are standing up for their rights, joining with unions and worker associations to achieve fundamental workplace rights.
As Njoki says, “We are the voice of today and we are the voice of tomorrow.”
Maher Dribik was among presenters at the UGTT National Youth Workers Commission workshop on informal economy workers. Credit: Lassaad Mahmoudi
More than 60 worker advocates shared strategies for empowering workers, especially women and young workers, trapped in informal economy jobs during last week’s World Social Forum in Tunis, Tunisia. Sponsored by the National Youth Workers Commission of the General Union of Tunisian Workers, (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT), together with the Solidarity Center, the workshop brought together representatives of European, Asian and Arab civil society organizations.
During the half-day workshop, the Youth Workers Commission shared a report on informal economy workers in Tunisia the UGTT released last year. The report found that 67 percent of Tunisian workers in the informal economy do not benefit from social protections such as paid sick leave, and pointed out that the informal economy is growing, accounting for 38 percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013, compared with 30 percent in 2010.
Workshop participants suggested the need for employers, workers and the government to work together to define a new development model; reform programs covering social protections; and encourage a sense of citizenship among workers and employers in the informal economy. The workshop also served to build and strengthen alliances between civil society organizations and trade unions.
Some 70,000 participants, representing more than 4,000 organizations took part in the World Social Forum. The five-day event serves as an annual counterweight to the Davos World Economic Forum, where top political leaders and business elites meet to discuss economic issues.
Workers in Peru are celebrating the repeal this week of a labor law that targeted young workers, a huge victory that followed weeks of street demonstrations and protests by working people and their unions.
Peru’s Congress voted 114–91 to repeal the law, which reduced salaries and benefits for workers under age 25. A recent poll showed only one-fifth of Peruvians supported the law.
The secretary general of the Topitop textile union featured on the cover of Peru’s La Republica as workers celebrated repeal of the labor law.
Ultimately, workers say, the law would not only have harmed young workers.
Jorge, an apparel worker at a Topitop factory that employs 2,400 workers, puts it this way: “What the company wants is to fire us and replace us with younger workers without any benefits.” Adds Abel, also a garment worker: “What we are doing is defending ourselves, our children and our future grandchildren.”
Young labor activists from the textile and apparel, export-oriented agriculture and mining sectors took vocal positions against the law and helped lead protests. The Solidarity Center, with support from the U.S. Department of Labor, works closely with young Peruvian worker activists to help them analyze their labor rights; develop leadership, negotiating and organizing skills; and learn to advocate for their issues.
As students, young workers and the Peruvian labor movement look toward upcoming campaigns to push for approval of a general labor law, an increase in the minimum wage and the repeal of another recent law that makes it easier for employers to conduct mass layoffs, the Solidarity Center plans to continue to work alongside union allies at the workplace, federation and confederation level to identify lessons learned from this experience and ensure that young workers can continue to provide leadership in union building and policy campaigns.
Tunisia is among many countries around the world seeing rapid growth in their informal economies. In 2013, Tunisia’s informal economy accounted for 38 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), up from 30 percent in 2010.
A new study by the Tunisian General Labor Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT) and the Solidarity Center looks at factors fueling the expansion of Tunisia’s informal economy and offers recommendations for helping workers in the informal sector get job security and social protections they often do not have as domestic workers, street vendors and construction workers.
• Workers in Tunisia’s informal economy lack basic decent work conditions such as social protection, health insurance, professional security and union rights and freedom.
• Young workers are especially vulnerable. Because they are concentrated primarily in the tourism sector, their wages are low and they have little job stability.
• The rapid growth of the informal economy has resulted in an annual 7 percent fiscal loss to the Tunisian national budget, badly impacting public spending and blocking the expansion of worker economic and social rights.
As UGTT Secretary General Houcine Abbassi says in a foreword to the report: “Because the informal economy neither contributes to the nation’s fiscal base nor offers workers social security protection, it is a serious challenge that must be addressed so as to ensure a national economic recovery and decent working conditions and social justice for all workers.”
Tunisia’s National Economic Dialogue Commission on the Informal Economy has adopted the study as an official reference document and has referred to it in its recommendations.
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