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Commentary: Underpaid, bullied and exploited in first jobs

One survey of undergrads revealed that almost three-quarters reported experiencing some form of exploitative, abusive or harassing behaviour in their first job.

QUEENSLAND: A teenager’s first job can be deeply rewarding, a step towards independence and building skills. But that job may also involve an early taste of exploitative workplace behaviours, including abuse, bullying and harassment.

There are numerous cases of exploitation in workplaces that offer jobs to young people.

Young people working in hospitality – covering restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs – are particularly at risk of exploitative practices, according to Australia's Fair Work Ombudsman.

We surveyed 330 undergraduate university students about their experiences in the workplace, and found almost three-quarters (74.2 per cent) of respondents reported experiencing some form of exploitative, abusive or harassing behaviour in their first job.

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While the results may not be representative of all young peoples’ work experiences, they provide a good indication of the pattern and relative frequency of different forms of exploitative behaviour.

Importantly for prevention, the study also indicates who is most likely to be a perpetrator and who is most at risk. The results of this exploratory study show that workplace exploitation is common enough to warrant future research to understand the extent and consequences.

In our study we defined exploitation as the following behaviours: Economic exploitation, such as not receiving the correct pay, superannuation, breaks, holidays, or being unfairly dismissed; exposure to unsafe work conditions, including not being properly trained or supervised, or being required to carry out tasks breaching workplace health and safety rules.

These also include bullying, involving repeated behaviour that humiliates and intimidates the victim; sexual harassment, involving all unwelcomed sexual behaviour such as touching, as well as jokes or unwanted communication; verbal harassment, such as being sworn at, insulted and berated; and physical violence, including threats of a physical attack.


The age at which our respondents were first employed in Australia ranged as low as 11 to 17. The majority of respondents (84.0 per cent) were first employed in retail or hospitality.

(Photo: Unsplash/Chuttersnap)

Just over half (51.5 per cent) of our participants reported some kind of economic exploitation in their first job, including incorrect pay and not being allowed proper breaks.

Verbal harassment was also a common experience (49.1 per cent), followed by exposure to unsafe work conditions (32.1 per cent), sexual harassment (14.5 per cent), and violence (6.4 per cent) in their first job.

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Nearly a third experienced ongoing incidents of workplace bullying in their first job, and about a quarter of respondents reported no form of workplace exploitation in their first job.


Our results indicate there is a statistically significant association between (1) the age respondents are first employed and exploitation and (2) gender and exploitation.

Those who started their first job when aged under 16 were significantly more likely to report verbal harassment (55.3 per cent) and bullying (35.2 per cent) than older respondents aged 16 and 17 (39.7 per cent and 20.6 per cent, respectively).

This is consistent with other research showing younger teenagers are more vulnerable to being exploited, because they may not understand workplace agreements and laws, and be more frightened to report incorrect pay or incidents.

Females were significantly more likely to report economic exploitation (49.1 per cent) and sexual harassment (16.6 per cent) compared to their male counterparts (34.5 per cent and 5.2 per cent, respectively).

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Co-workers, supervisors and employers were largely responsible for bullying and exposing teenagers to unsafe work conditions. Customers were largely responsible for harassment and physical abuse.

(Photo: Unsplash/Jacky Watt)

Respondents also reported many instances where other workers or managers (including owners) witnessed exploitative behaviour but failed to intervene.


Our analysis of survey data indicates workplaces can do much more to protect young people from victimisation.

Low management supervision in retail and hospitality settings, for example, puts females under 16 at high risk of harassment and economic exploitation.

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To improve the situation, governments and workplace regulators should more actively monitor, investigate and enforce the laws and regulations. Specifically those surrounding child employment, fair work, pay and superannuation, and workplace health and safety.

Governments and industry groups also need to more effectively engage with employers to make them more aware of their legal obligations.

There is a role for technology that can help young people monitor their working conditions, such as apps that help staff track their hours and pay. They could also be modified to enable the reporting of incidents of abuse or incorrect pay.

In recent years, countries including Australia, have lurched from one worker underpayment and exploitation scandal to another. Our research indicates this problem may be more grave and pervasive than we have imagined. If that is the case, we must do better.

Carley Ruiz is research assistant, David Bartlett is research fellow, and Emily Moir is lecturer, all with the Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University. A version of this commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

Source: CNA/nr


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