'Seven in 10' young workers bullied, harassed in Canberra: Unions ACT
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'Seven in 10' young workers bullied, harassed in Canberra: Unions ACT

An alarming number of young Canberra workers have been bullied, harassed or exposed to unsafe working conditions on the job, Unions ACT claims.

According to a survey of 263 workers aged 15 to 25, seven out of 10 workers felt bullied or harassed at work while one in two felt they had been forced to work in an unsafe environment.

Young workers in Canberra have reported being bullied or harassed.

Young workers in Canberra have reported being bullied or harassed.

Photo: Louie Dovis

Unions ACT secretary Alex White said "unscrupulous" employers were taking advantage of the naivety of younger staff who were unaware of their rights in the workplace.

"It's a very alarming figure and we suspect it's concentrated amongst particular groups so young women and people who are same-sex attracted are particularly exposed to bullying and harassment at work," Mr White said.

"[Young workers] are constantly telling us they don't know what their rights are, they don't know they can say 'no' when they're directed to work in an unsafe workplace and they don't know who to turn to when they feel bullied and harassed.

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"It's not something that's sufficiently taught at schools and there's not enough resources in WorkSafe to ensure these young workers are safe."

One 16-year-old worker surveyed recounted how an older and higher ranking employee constantly belittled them, gave them looks that made them feel uncomfortable and often asked if they were a "retard" or "stupid".

"Some nights I would come home in tears. My decision to leave the job was largely impact by her behaviour," the teenager said.

An 18-year-old told how staff at a Queanbeyan cafe would "look at me in a sexual way and ask me about the size of my boyfriend's penis."

A 21-year-old who was severely underweight said her manager called her fat and made sexist comments towards female staff "but was really buds with the male staff".

Another 21-year-old reported: "I was threatened with rape by an anonymous note at work."

Unions ACT will push the ACT government to withdraw funding from apprenticeship and traineeship providers if a serious injury or breach occurs on their watch, Mr White said.

He said the government also needed to bump up the penalties for employers found to be be doing the wrong thing.

However ACT work safety commissioner Greg Jones said harsher penalties did not always lead to compliance.

"Our experience is if you engage proactively and assist and inform the employers about what their employers are, they're a lot more likely to be compliant with legislation as opposed to if you go in with a big stick and slap fines or whatever on them straight away," Mr Jones said.

"We have found that across the board those who are less likely to comply will try and hide or conceal things but if you engage with them, they actually ask for advice and we can assist them to be compliant rather than use the big stick approach."

Mr Jones acknowledged young and itinerant workers were particularly vulnerable to being exploited on the job but believed the majority of bosses "did the right thing".

"Quite often it's not a deliberate breach of provisions, they just don't know what some of their responsibilities are so we engage and educate and if that doesn't work, or there's repeat offences then we certainly enforce and take strong regulatory action against anyone that leaves their young workers or any of their workers vulnerable or at risk to injury," Mr Jones said.

You can make a report to WorkSafe ACT here.

Your rights in the workplace

As an employee, you have a right to:

  • Know your pay rate (and to receive a pay slip). You also have a right to be paid penalty rates and extra loading in lieu of sick or annual leave if you are employed as a casual.
  • Be paid for all of the hours you work, including team meetings at your boss's request, training sessions, opening and closing the business and travelling during work hours as part of your job.
  • Be paid superannuation at least every three months. You should be paid super if you are over 18 and earn over $450 before tax in a month, or if you are under 18, work 30 hours per week and earn over $450 before tax in a month.
  • Be paid with money, not food, drink or other goods. Payment-in-kind is illegal.
  • Receive personal protective gear relevant to your job from your employer. You also have the right to be trained properly and have safe systems of work.
  • Not spend your pay on store produce. For example, your boss can't require you to buy the clothes your retail store stocks, even if you receive an employee discount.

For more on your rights in the workplace, head to fairwork.gov.au.

Katie Burgess

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.

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