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April 27, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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Student Workers

In 2009 VUWSA has resurrected Students as Workers Week. This Week was earlier held in 2004 and 2005, with the aim of educating and engaging students on the issue of workers rights, particularly pertaining to students but also in a wider sense.

Since the introduction of the student loan scheme in the early 1990s and the accompanying attacks on student living support, most students have been forced to borrow to live whilst studying. The cost of living has also dramatically increased during this period, though the level of weekly student allowance and loan payments have failed to adequately reflect this.

Largely in result, student employment is certainly no longer limited to summer time fruit picking or working the wharfs.

According to the 2007 Student Income and Expenditure Survey commissioned by the NZUSA (New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations), 90% of tertiary students partake in paid work whilst studying. This figure comprises 64% of students in regular work, and 36% in casual employment. 58% of students work during the Christmas break, and 64% during other university holidays.

As tertiary students have such high levels of participation in the workforce, issues concerning workers rights are as much a priority to VUWSA as campaigns around the student loan scheme or other campaigns that have traditionally been deemed ‘core business’ of students’ associations.

The position of workers in New Zealand has deteriorated significantly over the past 25 years. In the 9 years (1999 to 2008) under the previous Labour government, wage rises averaged between 2 and 3 percent per annum, which barely kept up with the rate of inflation during that period. During the same period real wages actually fell.

Contrast this with New Zealand’s wealthiest. On 21 July 2006 the National Business Review (NBR) published its annual Rich List. The list contained the richest 187 individuals and 51 families in New Zealand. This super-rich group had increased their wealth by just over $3.7 billion in the 12 months prior to this. That increase was as much as the wealth of the entire Rich List back in 1992. Those on the Rich List now have combined wealth estimated at over $35.1 billion.

The overall picture of income disparity in New Zealand is a grim one. The median household income grew by a mere 13 percent between 2001 and 2004, while the super-rich saw their wealth increase by 75 percent during that period.

More recently (just before Christmas), the newly elected National government passed the 90 Day Probation Act. This new employment law weakens further the legal protection of workers. Specifically, those employed by small firms can now be fired at will during the first 90 days of their employment. A great number of students work in jobs which are affected by this legislation. VUWSA has scheduled a Student Representative Council (SRC) meeting to debate this Act, along with other related topics (such as the minimum wage and flexible working hours). The meeting will be held on Wednesday, 1pm, at the Mount Street Bar. VUWSA encourages all students, regardless of your particular view on these topics, to attend and put forward your ideas.

Union Visibility Day is another key event that VUWSA has organised as part of Students as Workers Week. This event provides an opportunity for students to approach various trade unions, and should you wish, join one that covers your current job site. Union Visibility Day will be held in the Kelburn Quad from 11-1 on Monday.

Students as Workers Week is part of a wider strategy which aims to build a closer working relationship between students’ associations and trade unions. In the United Kingdom there is now a formal agreement between the National Union of Students’ (NUS) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) which encourages such a relationship for the mutual benefit of both organisations members. It would be advantageous for the NZUSA and the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) to consider such an agreement at some point in the future.

Students as Workers Week also aims to highlight relevant issues both internationally and at a local level. For instance, Thursday’s Philippines Solidarity Forum will consider aspects of the labour movements struggle in that country against state violence and trade union repression.

Here at Victoria University, particularly significant cuts have been made in some core areas of staffing as a result of long standing government under-funding. I was one of a number of fixed term sub lecturers who lost their job during the 2008-09 period. Drastic reductions in the amount of tutors, assistant lecturers, research assistants and the like hired this year has meant that many students have not had jobs to return to after the summer.

VUWSA, the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) and the Postgraduate Students’ Association (PGSA) are very concerned about the impact that these cuts are already having on both those staff (or former staff) affected, and on the wider ramifications for teaching and learning that these cuts cause. As part of Students as Workers Week we have organised a panel discussion to review the current situation for such workers at Victoria University, and consider practical ways that we can collectively work forward for the benefit of students and staff.

Significant attacks on wages and conditions have been made during the last 25 years, alongside massive increases in the wealth of a very small number. The purpose of the trade union movement is for workers to stand together and fight for improved work conditions. The 90% of students who work whilst studying should be part of this collective movement. Doing so can reap collective gains and help win back what has been lost by workers since the 1980s. This will not only assist in winning a better life for students, but for the working majority as a whole.

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