Education, support and law reform needed to prepare and protect young people at work
18 October 2021 at 5:50 pm
WEstjustice’s Francesca Lai shares findings from a two-year Youth Employment Justice Program, and makes the case for why governments need to invest in community education and legal support programs for young people at work.
There is always a lot of discussion about the economy, unemployment and industrial relations policies in politics and the media. People have strong opinions when it comes to these topics and they become a battle zone in the ideological battles between left and right.
However, the experiences, challenges and needs of teenagers and young people in workplaces are rarely discussed. There is often an incorrect perception that teenagers work for pocket money (rather than to support their families) and that poor pay and bad experiences at work are a necessary part of growing up.
WEstjustice is an innovative community legal centre working in Melbourne’s western suburbs. We have a strong focus on supporting young people, including culturally diverse young people, and provide education, information and legal support to over 1,000 young people each year.
Our Youth Employment Justice Program (YEJP) was designed to fill a significant gap for young people in our area, a gap that also exists for young people across Victoria and Australia.
We secured funding from the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust to run this program for two years and recently launched our report, Ignorance is not bliss, which highlights what we learned and what we have identified as urgent funding, system and policy changes needed to empower and protect teenagers and young people at work.
“At the time I was stressed about money because my mum needed eye surgery, and… the ripple effect of not being paid enough. I felt my boss was using this to target me for asking about my rights. I ended up losing my job as a result of the argument.” – YEJP client
There were three key components of the program:
- Targeted legal services embedded in locations where young people go to learn, study and access youth and wellbeing services.
- Targeted community legal education on work rights and responsibilities for young people, as well as the staff and teachers who work with them.
- Strategic advocacy and reform for the improvement of employment laws and processes to overcome common issues facing young workers.
We delivered 37 education sessions to over 1,800 participants and provided legal advice and/or assistance to 106 clients.
More than two-thirds of our clients were victims of wage theft and nearly a quarter had been unfairly or unlawfully dismissed. We helped to recover over $150,000 in wages and compensation owed to clients.
Most importantly, we provided essential knowledge on work rights and improved job readiness to 2,000 young people.
Along the way, we learned a great deal about the way employers, community services and welfare systems are failing this group.
We found that the reasons young people are exploited at work have nothing to do with their commitment, motivation or attitude. The drivers of vulnerability are systematic in nature and designed to disempower people through poor pay, conditions and job security.
We also found that the formal education system, from high school through to tertiary and private education providers, fails to equip students with the knowledge they need to navigate workplaces and effectively exercise their rights at work.
Finally, there is a lack of legal advice and assistance for young people when they have issues at work. Community legal centres across Australia are not consistently or adequately funded to provide employment support. Prevention and early intervention are key.
In addition, when young people do seek assistance, the individualised nature of our legal system puts the onus on the young person to seek justice which can be intimidating and overwhelming.
Our 10 key recommendations, relevant for states, territories and the federal government include the following:
- Provide dedicated education programs in high schools, TAFEs, universities and private education providers on work rights and responsibilities.
- Provide dedicated funding through the National Legal Assistance Partnership and/or state funding streams for employment-related community education and legal advice and assistance.
- Fund strategic partnerships between community legal centres and employment service providers.
- Require employers to take active steps to prevent exploitation at work.
- Abolish junior pay rates.
- Appoint state/territory based employment commissioners.
- Crack down on sham contracting, better protect dependent contractors and improve Fair Work Act compliance in franchises.
- Improve Fair Work Ombudsman support for employment services providers.
- Improve Commonwealth and state/territory employment services programs.
- Increase funding through the Fair Work Ombudsman to support vulnerable workers.
We will continue to advocate for these changes and work with the community legal sector, community services, schools, education providers and unions to improve our workplace laws, increase accountability for employers and to give every teenager and young person the information and support they need to enter the workforce and exercise their rights at work.