Standing up for your rights at work can be challenging for anyone. For teens embarking on their first job, it can feel especially risky. This is where the Young Workers Centre (YWC) can step in, giving young people the knowledge and confidence to ask vital questions about pay, entitlements and workplace culture.
“Young workers are the most vulnerable at work, and often not treated well or paid fairly, and that’s no way to begin your working life,” says YWC director Felicity Sowerbutts. “We’re empowering them to speak up, and to get connected with their union.”
Since 2016, the Young Workers Centre, which also operates as a legal centre, has visited almost 740 educational institutions and spoken to over 50,000 Victorian students about their rights at work.
Felicity says one of the biggest issues for young employees is a lack of documentation. “When there are no contracts or pay slips, it makes it hard to seek justice for any problems.”
Wage theft and unpaid placements are another issue young workers raise “time and time again”, she says. “We see people working full shifts as an unpaid trial, even though this is illegal – sometimes used by employers to cover public holiday shifts by employers seeking to avoid paying their regular staff.”
Pre-service teachers are burning themselves out before they even get started in their careers.
Occupational health and safety, both physical and psycho-social, is another big-ticket item. “When there’s a lack of adequate training, incidences occur – and for a cash-in-hand job, employers can avoid taking responsibility for any injury,” says Felicity. “With the current cost of living, we are especially hearing from pre-service teachers who are trying to get through their studies while holding down a paid job. They are burning out before they even get started in their careers.”
Footscray High School teacher Ashleigh Braybrook likes to takes students to Trades Hall to do YWC’s WorkSafe-accredited training on site.
“Our Year 9 Technology and Engineering stream takes part in the tour to engage with the historically significant architecture of Trades Hall, and to learn about the rigorous restoration process they have undertaken in the last few years.”
For their Social Justice stream, Ash’s students encounter the rich history of the Australian union movement. “Students learn how Australia has led the way for social progress, important historical moments that have taken place between the walls of Trades Hall, as well as stories of tiny sovereign nations and late-night shoot-outs.”
The students also take part in the YWC’s ‘Your Rights at Work’ sessions, which provides them with the tools to be more empowered when they enter the workforce, says Ash. “Last time we visited, the students had so many questions and passionate discussions, we almost didn’t have time to go on the tour!”
The YWC is currently in the process of setting up a partnership program with Apprenticeships Victoria and the Office of TAFE Coordination and Delivery to roll out its ‘Apprentice Readiness’ module for every first-year apprentice in every Victorian TAFE over the next two years. This is a response to the high number of inquiries from apprentices being ripped off or feeling unsafe on the job.
“We know that apprentice completion rates are pretty poor at 52%, and research shows that’s because of what’s happening at work and not anything to do with their training at TAFE,” says Felicity.
The YWC’s outreach organisers are all young workers themselves. “We want students to relate to the stories,” says Felicity. “We also tell young workers that their co-workers are their best allies, so we encourage them to speak to each other and then speak to the employer together.
“We also encourage them to seek support from teachers, their parents, and their union. It’s always fantastic when we go to schools or TAFEs and there are AEU members in the room. They can back our message that the collective is powerful.”