Young and exploited

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Many young people are not aware of their workplace rights and are too afraid to stand up to their employers, writes Amy Collins

Stan*, 20, has been unemployed for three months since he quit his casual job at an outer suburban café.

He claims the underpayment, bullying and deprivation of his basic work rights began to affect his mental health and forced him to leave the job after eight months.

“The workplace was so unbearable that I had to quit,” he says.

Stan was hired as a casual employee which meant he was not entitled to any paid annual leave or sick leave. He says his manager rostered him on like a full-time employee and expected the same of him as he would a full-timer, but would not allow for any of the entitlements that came with that position.

He alleges the manager underpaid staff by up to $6 an hour and did not pay penalty rates for work on weekends or public holidays. Employees were subject to bullying, intimidation and inappropriate workplace behaviour at the hands of their employer, who threatened to fire them if they contested his position of authority, Stan says.

“Everyone knew we were being underpaid but we felt pressured to accept it as though it was almost a favour,” he says. “Whenever we brought it up it was pretty quickly dismissed.”

These workplace conditions are frighteningly common. Many young people are not aware of their workplace rights and are too afraid to stand up to their employers. There is no way of knowing exactly how widespread this issue is as most disputes go unreported, with young people preferring to quit than confront their employers over any problems.

“There should be a regulation that every workplace must have information on our rights readily available,” Stan says. This is already mandatory nationwide, however many employers ignore the law and fail to provide information on workplace rights or dispute resolution to their employees.

“What’s the point in having laws if nobody is going to listen to or enforce them?” he says.

“The largest problem we’re seeing is young people not having the effective means to defend their employment rights,” says Matthew Wilson, a solicitor from the Young Workers Centre at Trades Hall. “The current workplace laws unfairly favour the employer and fail to adequately service young workers.”

The Young Workers Centre provides a free legal service to workers under the age of 30. Wilson says the most common problem workers complain of is underpayment and employers failing to comply with penalty rates for weekends and public holiday work.

The Fair Work Commission recovered $2.88 million in unpaid wages for young workers aged 26 and under in the last financial year. Many unpaid wages go unreported and unrecovered as young people do not understand the system they must work within to pursue money owed to them.

“There is a culture in which employers expect to be immune and not held accountable for breaching people’s rights at work,” says Wilson.

Resolution of a workplace dispute requires the affected employees to raise the issue with their management first. If this fails to resolve the problem then they must pursue the issue with the Fair Work Commission. This is an act most young people will not consider as they fear the repercussions for standing up to their bosses.

For many working young people there is a power imbalance between the employers and the employees, making it difficult to address any workplace issues.

“It can be incredibly intimidating, I really don’t know anyone who believes they have a right to confront their bosses and say what their rights are,” Stan says.

The Fair Work Commission is the government body responsible for resolving disputes and assisting parties to comply with provisions of the Fair Work Act. Workplace disputes are presenting in the hundreds and creating a backlog for the Commission to work through. Some cases take up to 6 weeks to come before the Commission to reach a resolution.

In the financial year of 2014-2015, 26 percent of requests for assistance to the Fair Work Commission were made by young people, says Ryan Pedley, assistant media director from the Commission.

“Accommodation and hospitality industries were the biggest offenders, followed by construction and retail.”

Wilson says the commission plays an important role in the absence of a union movement that covers most workers. Only eight percent of young working Australians are members of their trade union.

“Workers that engage in a process of dispute resolution without legal representation or unions are going to be disadvantaged. This is because of the great power imbalance between employers and employees and the laws leaning in favour of the employers,” says Mr Wilson.

“We need to publicise as widely as possible the outcomes of workplace disputes to send the message to employers that they cannot expect to fly under the radar and avoid their obligations.”

In April 2016, 13.6 percent of young Melburnians were unemployed. Stan says he and many of his friends are nervous about rejoining the workforce out of fear they will suffer the same mistreatment.

“I’d like to see a degree of liberation and some education for the young working class, nobody has any idea what they’re entitled to or that they can go out and fix the problems themselves,” Stan says.

By including workplace rights in the school curriculum and teaching young people to stand together as a collective in the face of workplace issues, Wilson says the young workforce can begin to solve the widespread problem.

“When people work together they can find common ground to approach the employer as a team,’’ he says.

  • The name has been changed