Liam McCabe: Why the students’ movement is linking arms with the workers’ movement to fight exploitation

Ben Wray

NUS Scotland President Liam McCabe explains why the students’ union is endorsing Unite Hospitality to eradicate unfair and exploitative work in Scotland

It WAS an immense privilege to be elected as NUS Scotland President, outlining my radical, positive vision for a powerful, campaigning, grassroots student movement. 

Representing over 500,000 students, NUS Scotland are at the forefront of fighting, and winning, for our members. From making mental health a priority and securing 80 new mental health counsellors throughout Scotland’s colleges and universities, to winning over £21 million investment in student bursaries, our members shape the agenda for change both within the education sector and far beyond it.  

But we know we can and must do more. It’s not good enough to rest on our laurels or revel in our past achievements.

As a movement, we are at our strongest when we take decisive, collective action. 

Collectively, we work best when we are at our most united. It is when we collate our ideas; when we pool our resources; when we deliver relevant and pertinent campaigns, and when we celebrate and vocalise our successes that we transform Scotland. This is not possible without working together, in solidarity with one another.

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Across the country, transformative change is occurring. From challenging the exploitation of workers to tenants, grassroots movements are changing the dynamic of student life in Scotland.  

The Living Rent campaign has educated a generation on how to challenge rogue landlords and fight for better accommodation.

Better Than Zero has agitated a generation in challenging bad bosses and exploitative practises in workplaces across Scotland.

Unite Hospitality has unionised a generation through their herculean efforts in collectivising workers within the hospitality sector. 

All of these movements are incredibly exciting. NUS Scotland takes inspiration from these campaigns, so we can learn from their ideas, dynamism, energy and success. 

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That’s why I was incredibly proud to support the motion to our Scottish Executive Committee to formally endorse and back Unite Hospitality.

We will now work with the Fair Hospitality campaign to equip students with greater knowledge on workplace rights, and to help create collective trade union representation within the hospitality sector. 

We will be ready to campaign alongside them – from the pavements to the parliament – in the fightback against exploitative conditions.  

Students in Scotland are among the most exploited and precariously employed workers throughout the country. 

We all know the unique pressures that come with student life; all of that would be challenging enough, were it not for the necessity of working whilst studying that many students face. Imagine then how difficult it must be if your employer can variably offer you too many or too few hours at work, can readily pocket your tips, expects you to get home (even late in the evening) and much, much more.

We are not shirkers or skivers, snowflakes or sensitive souls – we’re students.

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The narrative around student life must change and accept that students are fighting on all fronts. From holding down multiple jobs – exploitative, casualised and often zero hours – to caring responsibilities, housing costs, transport and travel costs and that’s all before we’ve even picked up a textbook (the cost of which would probably floor you itself!).

These are all issues that exist up and down the country, in colleges and universities throughout Scotland.

We can and we will change this. We will do this through our activism development workshops on campus. I ran on a platform that would see NUS Scotland adopt a fresh approach to organising, as we seek to empower our students to effect change. Our workshops will work directly with our members, listening to their concerns on campus and helping them form their campaign. 

Our student unions and associations are thriving hubs of activity. We want to harness that energy and give our members the tools and resources to campaign on what matters most to them.

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That’s precisely why we have endorsed Unite Hospitality. We will work with them in our struggle to eradicate unfair and exploitative work. This matters because it is a reality for many of our members across the country. For too long, students have been at the behest of unscrupulous employers that put their personal wealth before the prosperity and wellbeing of their workers. 

Unite Hospitality are beginning to turn the tide on unfair work practices. I welcome the move from the Scottish Government to work towards making Scotland a fair work nation by putting ‘fair work first’. But we cannot forget that this is because of relentless organising and effective campaigning by Unite Hospitality and others, without which the government would not have recognised the exploitation of workers and the need for action that matches their activism. 

Students have always been at the heart of grassroots activism throughout Scotland, and always will be. In partnership with Unite Hospitality we can bring transformative change to our campuses, workers and across society.

Picture courtesy of Joe Brusky