What are my rights at work?

As a young person, having a job can be a great way to feel independent and empowered. But, unfortunately, young people in the workforce aren't always treated fairly. They often work junior jobs in restaurants, bars, cafes, retail outlets or other small businesses. That means they’re the most likely group to be mistreated in the workplace. If you’re being underpaid or discriminated against, this treatment can seriously impact your sense of mental health and wellbeing.

Many people are surprised to hear they are legally entitled to more than what their workplace gives them – that’s why it’s so important to know your rights. Even if you aren’t in a position to do anything about what’s happening to you, knowing your rights can be helpful in case you’re put in a tricky situation in the future. Since it’s a lot to take in, we’ve split this article into four sections:

  1. How to find out how much you’re meant to be paid

  2. How to know if you’ve been discriminated against in the workplace

  3. How to know if you’ve been unfairly fired from your job

  4. What to do if your employer isn’t treating you fairly

1. Your right to fair pay

The laws surrounding how much you’re meant to be paid are frequently broken by employers. This is especially common for employees working for restaurants, bars, cafes, retail outlets or small businesses. Recently, a nationwide audit by the Fair Work Commission found that 61% of hospitality businesses, and 47% of retail businesses, weren’t paying their employees the amount they were entitled to by law. So, even if you’re pretty sure that you aren’t being underpaid, it’s always a good idea to double check.

How do I find out how much I’m meant to be paid?

The best way to find out how much you’re meant to be paid is by using one of the tools developed by the Fair Work Ombudsman, the government agency in charge of overseeing your rights at work.

Finding your ‘award’

The first step to finding how much pay you deserve is to find your ‘award’. An award is basically what your minimum amount of pay is. Unlike the ‘minimum wage’, though, it changes from industry to industry. Your award will also specify other rights you might have, such as the length of your breaks, and whether you’re entitled to be paid penalty rates on weekends and public holidays.

The easiest way to find out your award is by using the Fair Work Ombudsman’s ‘Find my award’ tool here. If you work in retail or hospitality, it should be pretty clear what your award is. But if you have a less common job, this tool can help you find out exactly what award you come under.

Finding your pay

Once you know your award, it’s a bit easier to find out exactly what your minimum pay should be. The amount can change depending on your age, how long you’ve been working, and other factors. The easiest way to account for this is to use the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Pay Calculator here.

2. Discrimination

Discrimination in the workplace can take many forms, and can often be hard to identify. Read our article about what discrimination is and what it can look like here to find out more.

What it looks like

Here are a few examples of how you could be discriminated against in the workplace due to your gender, ethnicity, sexuality or disability:

  • You are the subject of inappropriate or offensive jokes, remarks, rumors or other treatment. Read more about workplace bullying and what to do about it here.

  • You are demoted, given poor shifts, overlooked for promotion, or not hired in the first place because of these factors.

  • You are dismissed and you suspect it’s because of discrimination.

Get down the details

If you are being discriminated against, one important tip is to write down exactly what is happening to you. This is because if you need to take action from within your organisation or by other means in the future, having a record of all the details will make your case stronger.

3. Unfair dismissal

If you were fired from your job and not given a decent reason, what happened may have been illegal. Here are a few key things to know about this:

  • If you were let go and told that your position was made redundant (that your job doesn’t need to be done anymore, or that your employer is going through rough times financially), you still need to be given notice. The amount of notice depends on your award. (See above for how to find this.)

  • Many young people believe that unfair dismissal laws don’t apply to them, because they are employed as a casual. However, it’s important to know that this isn’t the case. These laws apply to anyone who has worked for their employer for longer than six months, or who has worked on a ‘regular and systematic basis’ for at least six months. If your employer is a small business – that is, a business with fewer than 15 employees – this period is 12 months.

  • Act quickly: if you think you have been unfairly dismissed, the law requires you to act within 21 days from the day you were sacked.

What if I’m not being treated fairly?

Being mistreated in the workplace sucks. It feels horrible to be denied money you’ve earned; it can seriously impact your lifestyle and wellbeing; and, even worse, you might feel like you can’t do anything about your situation. Here are a few options you have.

Get help from within your organisation

It can be difficult to seek help within your business, especially if you’re worried about getting in trouble for speaking out. However, there may be a way to voice these concerns anonymously or via a third party such as a union representative, workplace delegate or HR person, who might be more neutral than your boss.

You might want to talk to your co-workers and ask if they’re experiencing the same issue. If they are, it can be more effective to bring up this issue with your employer as a group. If you decide to do this, here are a few things you should know:

  • You can’t be fired for raising these issues with your employer.

  • You can’t be fired for talking about them with your co-workers or seeking help from an external organisation.

Get help from an external organisation

If you’re afraid to talk about these issues with your employer, or you have already done so and it hasn’t worked, you might want to contact an organisation that can help you. Doing this doesn’t have to mean that you are taking ‘legal action’ or that your employer is going to find out. It may be that they can give you advice about your situation, or help you in other ways.

The best way to find help for your situation is to use this site from Community Legal Centres NSW which will match you up with the best organisation for your needs. Here are a few other groups that might be able to give you a hand, depending on your situation:

What can I do now?

  • If you need help with your workplace issue, click here to find a Community Legal Centre that can help you.

  • Learn more about what discrimination is.

  • If you’ve got a question about your rights at work, and it wasn’t answered here, try having a look on the Fair Work Ombudsman’s website.