OpinionSocial issues

Youth Employment: Know Your Rights!

(Scottish Grocer, 2015)

Congratulations, you’re hired! You’ve got the job, so all you have to do is show-up on time looking decent and smile, right? Not quite. As I found out the hard way, there are technical aspects of working life that young workers in particular need to be aware of.

While most young people are likely to start their working lives in low-end retail, fast-food or hospitality, there are certain standards an employer has to uphold, whether the young person is working in casual, part-time or full-time employment.

We may tend to think of age discrimination in the workplace as being a concern for older Australians, but a survey conducted by JobsLive, an online recruitment centre, found that 53 per cent of young workers (18-24 year olds) said they’d personally witnessed an incident where either they, themselves, or a colleague, had been treated unfairly because of their younger age, while 35 per cent of all respondents reported seeing or experiencing incidents of unequal treatment towards younger employees (Work Place Info, 2018).

Common stereotypes representing young people as entitled, lazy, and immature may seem harmless due to their exaggerated nature, but can have real consequences when they inform the treatment of young workers. These stereotypes don’t just effect entry into the workforce, but also interactions once a young person is hired.

Between July 2011 and June 2016, the Fair Work Ombudsman, a national service that manages standards for employment and investigates workplace complaints, received more than 27 000 requests for assistance from young workers (Fair Work Ombudsman, 2017). Fair Work Ombudsman representative Natalie James says that, “Young workers make up about 16 per cent of the Australian workforce but account for a disproportionately high 25 per cent of requests for assistance to the agency.”

There are two main sets of entitlements that can cover a worker: a registered agreement or an Award. The first is a contract set out by the employer and registered with the government. You can search for a registered agreement using the business’ ABN and the Fair Work database. The second is a set of guidelines that dictate what employees are entitled to within their industry, and outlines things such as the minimum wage per age group, and break requirements.

“The Fair Work Ombudsman treats alleged breaches of workplace laws involving young workers particularly seriously because we are aware they can be vulnerable, as they are often unaware of their rights, heavily reliant on their employers and reluctant to complain,” says a spokesperson for the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Even after identifying potential issues in their workplace, young workers are particularly reluctant to stand up for their rights, and there are several reasons for this.

Firstly, young workers are new to the workforce, and can fall into the trap of thinking that it’s ‘just a casual job.’ They’re grateful to be receiving any wage after possibly having no prior income. However, the rights and standards set for employment are there to ensure fairness and equality, and small indiscretions, such as not getting paid for small amounts of overtime work, can quickly snowball into bigger infringements. For example, I worked out I was owed over $3000 in one financial year, money I would have received had I been paid the correct amount for the hours I had worked. That’s a lot of avocados.

Secondly, young workers may find themselves intimidated by their employer or manager, given their relative age and lack of experience. They may feel they have less to offer an employer and therefore should remain in the job at any cost.

Another issue I discovered from personal experience is the assumption that other workers would not remain in their positions if the current standards were unacceptable. However, as noted by a Fair Work spokesperson, young people fresh into the workforce are often dependent on very low wages to make rent, pay for education tuition, or buy food and other necessities, and therefore not in a position to speak up and risk losing their jobs. This can cause young people to feel trapped within poor work conditions, and that is when they should contact services like Fair Work for support.

Often young people can feel bad for speaking up when no one else does, and can feel as if they are being ‘sneaky’ by doing research behind the backs of their employer and fellow colleagues. However, this is not the playground where tattle-tales are ridiculed or bullied for not sticking with their peers, and loss of wages or rights violations are serious issues that can be dealt with appropriately.

The Fair Work Ombudsman provides a handy guide for young workers outlining common issues, at the following link.

However, employers are not always and inevitably the bad guys. The responsibility falls equally on the employee to assert their rights and the employer to be vigilant of rights violations against their young workers. As Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James also notes, often employers commit serious violations of workplace law unknowingly, because they are unaware of what is acceptable.

Similarly, young workers don’t always understand the level of performance required within a job, and employers may feel the need to reduce payment or breaks due to the employee’s under-performance, which is discrimination based on experience and age. Instead, both employer and employee should work together to ensure they both understand what is expected within the workplace, and work to maintain these standards.

It is important to find out information for yourself, and not rely on the information provided by an employer or fellow workers, as these can be biased to privilege the business. This is particularly important when first starting out in a new workplace, because this is when young workers will feel most isolated, not knowing any of the other workers who have already formed relationships with one another.

Fair Work also provides a guide for employers hiring young workers.

For free advice and assistance on workplace issues, contact the Fair Work Ombudsman through their website www.fairwork.gov.au or by calling 13 13 94. An interpreter service is available on 13 14 50.

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