Poor working conditions are to blame for young people not returning to work, not the Pandemic Unemployment Payment

It is not the Pandemic Unemployment Payment keeping young people from working, but rather unacceptable working conditions and low wages offered by employers.

With the reopening of restaurants, pubs and retail, the usual disparaging comments about the work ethic of the young can be heard again. Now the argument is that staff shortages nationwide can be attributed to lazy students who are refusing to come off the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP). As far as past villainizations of young people go, this one holds an extra level of irony as the businesses making these claims are the same places who treat students like dispensable, interchangeable cheap labour. With a rising generation of students who would rather quit than put up with unfair working conditions, it is no wonder that businesses have used PUP to strawman dissatisfaction with their own shortcomings as employers. 

Over the years, there has developed a divide as to what society considers a student job. Most of the time, these are the jobs that the rest of the population did not want to do. Jobs such as wait staff, retail workers, baristas, bartenders, call-centre work and kitchen porting are among those in which students make up a large percentage of staff. These same jobs also have higher staff turnover rates, with employers also blaming students for this. In reality a number of facts come into play as to why these jobs are often occupied by students rather than full-time staff.

“Many of the employers who are complaining about students refusing to return to work pay minimum, or below minimum wage jobs.”

Many of the employers who are complaining about students refusing to return to work pay minimum or below minimum wage jobs. The Eurostudent, in their Social and Economic Conditions of Student Life in Europe report, found that in Ireland the median self-earned wage for students was below €400 a month, pre Covid-19. Many students don’t have the option of taking reduced hours during term time with one in five Eurostudents feeling they are a worker first and a student second. The average student wage tends to sit at just €10, which is below minimum and €2.30 below the Dublin living wage. Many employers take advantage of a legal loophole that allows them to pay young people below minimum wage until the age of 21, which means that students are often affected by this as they tend to fall under the threshold. Out of personal experience alone, all of my friends have at one point taken a cash-in-hand job for under minimum wage. With the pandemic fresh in everyone’s minds, many students no longer feel safe taking jobs where tax stamps are not being paid by owners, as if another lockdown comes into place they will be stuck without any income. Many students might jump from a job in hopes of a slightly better wage to try and make ends meet. With wages being no incentive to stay in a job, students tend to quickly move on if other areas also give no reason to stay. 

Along with low wages, the physical and mental exertion that these jobs require are often not proportional to their pay. The term “student jobs” has begun to mean very customer focused or labour-intensive jobs such as waiting, retail, factory work, etc. Many of these shifts stretch the labour laws in having staff work long hours with minimal to no breaks. Breaks are often unpaid and deemed as a privilege by employers that should be skipped or ignored if the business is busy. Often bad employers will emotionally manipulate employees into skipping their mandated entitlements with phrases such as “be a team player” to try and draw attention away from the fact that they are understaffed.  Along with skipping breaks many of these jobs can be seen as draining; dealing with customer complaints, constantly moving and “looking busy”. Being constantly moving can add to the draining nature of these jobs. These jobs can also require an unnecessary amount of experience for students, wanting a minimum 2 or 3 years experience in the industry. This can often lead to staff carrying bad habits from other businesses and no one being trained in the company’s standard operating procedures. With wages not matching the effort that these jobs require, there is another lack of incentive to work in them. 

With the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, many students are able to focus on their studies where such a privilege was previously unavailable. Countries such as Germany, Finland and Norway have removed tuition fees for citizens in third level education. Having to take on work can cause many students to miss out on Erasmus or internships because they cannot forfeit a consistent wage. Employers here also often use students’ urgent need for work as a way to get labour cheaply and sometimes exercise bad employment as they are working with a demographic who are in need of money but do not yet hold the qualifications for a better paying job.

“Before blaming people for not wanting to return to work for a wage that falls below what they would be earning not working, it might be a useful exercise to examine why that might be.”

Employers often use the PUP payment as a way of controlling the narrative around students not wishing to be exploited, which is unfair to employees who have had to bite their tongue to afford college. Before blaming people for not wanting to return to work for a wage that falls below what they would be earning not working, it might be a useful exercise to examine why that might be.