Words by Joshua (he/him), 18 NSW
Being a teenager involves a rapid process of becoming – discovering our passions, shaping our relationships and deciding upon our future.
Getting a first job is undoubtedly a liberating part of this experience. It provides a source of income, allowing us the freedom to buy a car or go out with friends. But it is also an invaluable opportunity, exposing us to the wider world and allowing us to explore what the future could look like.
A first job is a chance to build skills that are useful beyond secondary education. It provides the practical experience school cannot.
Yet, in the midst of all of this it is often forgotten that too many are being thrown into what is a cloudy adult world without the instruments necessary to guide them.
I have heard too many stories from my peers of systemic underpayment. Of a 15-minute break for an 11-hour shift. Of becoming scared to ask for leave because of consistent verbal abuse and manipulation. These are the kinds of conditions that would be plastered over headlines if they were happening to adults in the professional world.
Whilst this doesn’t affect most – it affects some. And that is still unacceptable.
Tragically, young people often do not speak up. They don’t know how; telling their friends, their peers, but no-one else. But it is these individuals they are telling who are experiencing the same problems, who are equally unsure about how to address such issues.
Parents seem to be the only other route of redress that young people access. But this too has its faults, whether it be parents who are equally unsure how to react, or those who simply confront employers head-on and inflame tensions.
Many are afraid of speaking up. Some are threatened with dismissal. Others simply fear it. Either way, it’s a big problem, signifying the existence of a power imbalance between employers and their younger employees.
We cannot continue to allow what is supposed to be a formative experience for teenagers to become one of abuse and manipulation.
We cannot change this toxic culture without people first knowing about it. This starts with spreading awareness – media organisations, governments and non-government agencies all shoulder the responsibility of standing beside young people in calling attention to this issue.
Once we have awareness we need to look towards a solution. Legislated employment rights already exist for young people in Australia, yet there continues to be a problem.
The solution is to ensure these rights are upheld.
The best way to achieve this is to educate. Education of employers and their young employees.
We must educate young people. Educate them about what their rights are at work, and the avenues available for them to seek redress from malpractice and mistreatment. We cannot let the next generation of young people start work without this knowledge.
To achieve change regarding such a systematic issue, the best tool available is education. This tool is one readily available through the secondary education system, imparting this knowledge upon young people right as they begin seeking employment.
Perhaps a dedicated, year-long subject in Year 7 or 8 should be considered, and an online hub for young people to easily access information about their employment rights and potential redress on-demand. We could even legislate a requirement that this subject is completed before young people can enter the workforce. It is also essential that these new forums cover issues around psychological safety – from mental health to psychological manipulation.
We should have the tools to raise our concerns, the knowledge of what to do when our rights are breached, at our fingertips.
Employers too must have a better understanding of the unique needs and position of young workers. They are trapped in a fundamental power imbalance and thus those in power – employers – must become better at exercising it.
They must be educated too, receiving specialised training on how to work with young employees to ensure a first job remains the formative experience it was intended to be.
Most young people are lucky enough to avoid this problem. But some aren’t. For their sake, we can no longer dismiss this issue as simply the way of the world. Young people are the future of our nation. For their sake, the time to do better is now.
Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio