BWI to youth: Boldly face your future, unionised!

This week, BWI’s social media and website has had many messages from young worker leaders and their unions across globe about the importance of the acquisition of skills for young workers. These messages fill me with a sense of hope that our theme this International Youth Day to ‘Get Ready For The Future’ is resounding with so many that are joining the call for investment in skills. 

However, for many young workers, union demands for skills are not well understood because the idea of formal skills development and recognition is completely foreign to them. This is because employment is highly informalised in the building and construction as well as the wood and forestry sectors in many countries. In these countries, common practice is that young workers will learn on the job from other workers over time. 

The concept of formal employment has been so eroded that workers can only conceptualise jobs in these sectors as informal, with no access to basic protection and a high level of insecurity. Yet, highly informalised workplaces are likely to be workplaces with poor wages and working conditions. They are also likely to be more dangerous with less compliance to health and safety. As informalisation has increased, so has the feminization of the labour force. Increasing numbers of women have been incorporated into paid employment in the building and construction and wood and forestry sectors under conditions inferior to men, often because they are less skilled. 

As unions we need to push back on informalisation and work towards formalising informal workplaces and skills can provide a route to achieve this. Skilled workers are more likely to demand higher wages, have better and safer working conditions including job security. They are also able to take proof of skills and experience from one job to the next, increasing their chances of employability. We cannot let government and employers determine the skills in the labour market without workers and their unions. As trade unions, we need to exert our power to determine labour market structures that allow young workers to advance and grow, offering workers with means for social mobility to improve their lives. 

To this end, I support the call to action from our BWI Youth structure for affiliates to demand policies promoting vocational training and quality apprenticeship systems. By advancing skills we build a system by which young workers are able to develop and grow in the wood, forestry, building and construction sectors. Unions should be demanding that skills acquired by workers in the workplace are recognised through assessment and certification. We should be demanding that apprenticeships are standardised so that a young worker can confidently learn a trade. Vocational and skills training at institutions would build a career path for youth from school to prepare them for the workplace. 

We need governments to invest in quality vocational training and apprenticeship programmes in collaboration with unions and employers and for international finance institutions to make skills acquisition a required outcome of infrastructure projects. We have to negotiate with employers to secure opportunities for on-the-job trainings and to make funds available to train a highly skilled workforce that they need. 

We should be promoting skills not only for development and advancement but also for reskilling workers made redundant and for skills adaption with advances in work processes and techniques, for example as a result of digitalisation or climate mitigation and adaptation initiatives. Not only should young people be equipped for jobs during the recovery from the pandemic, but also to meet new labour market needs. Young workers should be ready to take up employment opportunities that emerge as digitalisation evolves how we work and as we adopt cleaner building methods and advance green buildings. 

In this time of crisis, let us use the power of our unions to determine a better future for young workers. Let us make it our jobs as unions to create the space for young workers to imagine a better future and to be empowered to participate in creating that future.

To young workers everywhere, I share with you a line from the epic movie series, Star Wars; “Always remember, your focus determines your reality”. I invite you to boldly face your future, unionised!

Ambet Yuson

BWI General Secretary