Youth rights at work worth fighting for

May 18, 2007

A young woman working in a juice bar is fired and rehired at a casual rate significantly less than her former wage. She is forced to sign an AWA (Australian Workplace Agreement — individual contract) to get her job back. A young man, aged 13, is fired after retaliating against his manager who assaulted him in a South Australian fast food business.

These horror stories are the products of the Howard government's Work Choices laws, which eliminate the collective bargaining system. What does this new draconian system mean for young workers, particularly those under the age of 18 and those forced to work while studying?

AWAs require workers to individually negotiate their pay and conditions with their employer, despite the state-level rules governing workers' rights. For young workers, with little experience or leverage, it means that the boss has a free rein to exploit the worker, rolling back conditions to a bare minimum.

The Office of the Employment Advocate in NSW found that in 64% of AWAs lodged under the new laws: annual leave loading had gone; in 63% of individual contracts penalty rates had disappeared; in 52% of agreements shift allowances were removed; in 16% of AWAs, all award conditions were dropped and replaced with the government's five minimum conditions; 40% of agreements dropped gazetted public holidays, while 44% have not retained substitute public holidays; overtime loading was modified in 31% of agreements, with 29% changing rest breaks and 27% altering public holiday payments; and more than one in five new workplace agreements did not include any pay rise for the duration of the agreement.

David Arancio, a 22-year-old Victorian man, lodged a complaint with the Office of the Workplace Rights Advocate against a car rental company. He is one of 1400 people who have contacted the Workplace Rights Information Line since March 2006. Many were young workers, including some who had already had their pay and conditions cut or who were forced to sign AWAs.

Arancio began work with the company in May 2006. Under his contract, he found he was being paid $225 per week less and working 14 hours more than in his previous job (which was similar). Arancio complained to the advocate, before discussing his concerns with his employer.

"Young people are just going to suffer [under Work Choices]", Arancio said. "You don't want to confront your employer about it [pay and conditions] because you are concerned about your position."

The Young Workers Advisory Service in Queensland (YWAS) advises young workers on industrial issues. In mid 2006, it made a submission to the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission highlighting the plight of young workers under the new workplace laws. It noted that young workers, especially those under 25, were willing to work unpaid hours, trials and through their breaks to prove themselves. The service has already assisted young people whose employers have told them they may not discuss their pay and conditions with others.

YWAS argued that individualising an employment agreement often has more to do with separating employees from each other than designing employee-specific agreements that increase flexibility and productivity. This appears to be prevalent among young people who work on AWAs at large retail and hospitality outlets that rely on a large youth work force.

Many young people are employed in casual positions which only offer several hours per week, meaning that that they have to take on two or three jobs to make ends meet. In many cases, those who also study report having to often miss class, or struggling to pass subjects, due to their jobs.

Young people have, and are, fighting these unjust laws. The successful national Resistance-led student strike against Work Choices last June 1 showed that young workers and students are angry about these laws.

As a Resistance speaker at one of the rallies put it: "High school students are considered old enough to work, to pay taxes, to risk their life (and sometimes even lose it in unsafe workplaces), but not old enough to vote against Work Choices! That's crap! Working rights are never just given — they're fought for. It makes us angry that now we have to fight to defend the very rights which were fought for and won so many years ago. But we can, and must, fight — and we will win."

[Mel Hughes is a member of Adelaide Resistance.]

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