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Compounding vulnerability? Young workers' employment concerns and the anticipated impact of the WorkChoices act.


This paper draws on quantitative data from the Young Workers Advisory Service (YWAS), an organisation that provides information, advice, and advocacy to young workers across Queensland. Since its inception in 2002 YWAS has recorded 4, 769 inquiries from young people up to the age of 25, the most frequent being (i) dismissal/redundancy; (ii) problems with pay/remuneration; (iii) issues with employment conditions (e.g., working hours, AWAs, award conditions); and (iv) workplace bullying. Further cross-tabs and qui-square analysis of these categories reveals different types of youth (by gender, age, occupation, job status and industry) who are most vulnerable. In examining the findings, particular attention is drawn to the recent regulatory change in Australia's labour market as manifest in the 2005 WorkChoices legislation. It is argued that the youth are vulnerable in employment, and that this vulnerability will only be aggravated in a deregulated employment environment.


The impact of the dramatic reconfiguring of the industrial relations regulatory environment in Australia has yet to be realised. What is known is that the impact will be differentially experienced across the workforce and that groups who are already vulnerable in the labour market will be doubly disadvantaged (Denniss 2005). One such group is young workers. Nearly two million young Australians aged 15 to 25 are employed in a variety of different arrangements. Many of these young people are working full-time while others combine work and study.

The key purpose of this paper is to document and analyse the experiences of this significant and growing segment of the Australian labour market. In order to achieve this aim the paper draws on data from the Young Workers Advisory Service (YWAS), a community-based organisation that provides information, advice, and advocacy to young workers across Queensland. Since its inception in 2002, YWAS has recorded 4,769 inquiries from young people up to the age of 25, which provide an insight into a range of issues pertaining to young people and the labour market. Data from the study will be used to develop a detailed picture of the kinds of employment relations problems that young people confront in the workplace. The paper will then extrapolate to a post-WorkChoices world and analyse the likely impacts of the legislation on young workers in particular, given the empirical picture revealed by the data.

Young Workers in Australia

Young people (for these purposes, defined as those between 15 and 24 years of age) form a significant segment of the labour market. Currently, workers in this age bracket make up 20 per cent of the Australian labour force. In raw numbers, there are 1.9 million young workers in Australia, out of a labour force of roughly 10 million. Put another way, 60 per cent of 15 to 24 year olds work (ABS 2004). Youth's patterns of labour force participation are quite distinctive. Of the 1.9 million young workers, 54 per cent are in full-time employment (with a further 12 per cent being part-timers desiring more hours, and 11 per cent unemployed). Of the younger (15 to19) cohort, 17 per cent work full-time, with a further 34 per cent working part-time; about half are not working at all (ABS 2004).

The young worker labour market thus splits into two distinct segments: those whose primary identification is with paid work not study (the young worker simpliciter), and those combining part-time (or sometimes full-time) paid work with school, TAFE or University studies (the young student-worker). The student-worker (of various kinds) has been a growing phenomenon in the last 10 to 15 years, driven by various factors such as increasing participation in education and training, the rising cost of tertiary education, new consumption needs, and demand-side factors such as the growth of the service economy and the prevalence of casual work in Australia. (1) It should be emphasised, though, that there are still close to a million young people working full-time, supporting (or attempting to support) themselves, and that in any case part-time student workers often make a vital economic contribution to low income households (Peetz 2005, p.38) as the concentration of poverty increases (that is, the proportion of low paid workers living in households below the median income level (Harding, cited in Pocock and Masterman-Smith 2005).

There are a number of key characteristics that define the labour of young workers. Average weekly earnings, as expected, are low, partly due to lack of experience and training, allied with the institutionalisation of youth wages in the award system. On average, those aged 15 to 19 working full time earn about half of general average weekly earnings and those aged 20 to 24 earn a little under 70 per cent of average weekly earnings (ABS 2005). The young labour market also has a distinctive industry and employment status composition. Over a quarter of young people aged 15 to 24 work in the 'elementary clerical, sales and service worker' occupational category (compared to 7 per cent of workers in the 25 to 34 category). Young people are also over-represented in the 'labourers and related workers' category (13 per cent as compared with 8 per cent on the next highest age cohort; ABS 2004). Retail trade is the largest employing industry (employing 34 per cent of 15 to 24 year olds, compared to 12 per cent of 25 to 34 year olds), followed by 'accommodation, cafes and restaurants' (9 per cent compared to 4 per cent, ABS 2004). The proportion of youth working part-time is high and has increased significantly in the past two decades; only 18 per cent of young people worked part-time in 1983, compared to 47 per cent in 2003, and there has been a concomitant shift away from full-time employment (ABS 2004; Wooden 1998).

The Vulnerability of Young Workers

Recent Australian reports have consistently shown that young workers are under-informed about their employment-related rights and responsibilities. This extends even to the most basic information about a position. For example, a survey of 576 South Australian young workers found that 43 per cent of that sample did not know which award they were employed under (UnionsSA 2005). Further, a study of Victorian fast food workers (consisting of a sample of 572 young employees, 80 per cent of whom were secondary school students) revealed similar concerns about the level of industrial relations knowledge of this group. The study revealed that 43 per cent of young people did not know if they were receiving the minimum rate of pay (Smiljanic 2004, p. 22). Both the Victorian and South Australian studies also reported young workers having deductions illegally taken out of their pay (Smiljanic 2004, p. 58; UnionsSA 2005, p. 18).

This lack of knowledge about employment rights can easily lead to exploitation, with numerous instances detailed in a flurry of recent state government commissioned reports (NSW Commission for Children and Young People 2005; UnionsSA 2005; Queensland Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian 2004). Even where young people are aware that their rights are not being met, they may be ignorant as to the remedies or dispute procedures that may be available to them. One in ten workers in the Victorian survey and one in three workers in the South Australian study believed that they were being paid less than the award wage but had done nothing about it. Young workers were also routinely asked to work through their breaks or work unpaid overtime when they knew they were not required to do so. This is why the question of young people's involvement in the industrial relations system must consider not only the extent of their knowledge, but also their capacity to participate within the system. It is the limited capacity of student workers to participate within the institutions and processes of industrial relations that constrains their employment 'choices' and entrenches the exploitation of young workers (White 1997, p. 71).

Trade union membership provides an avenue for worker voice and a strong collective base from which to bargain, although young workers are under-represented in the Australian union movement and student workers even more so. This is the second key reason why young people are so vulnerable in employment. In 1999, less than 16 per cent of workers aged 15 to 24 were union members, the lowest proportion of any age bracket of workers, with the average density for the whole workforce being just under 26 per cent (ABS 2000). (2) Union density is lower for casual workers, and lower in the retail and hospitality industries--exactly where student workers are clustered; that is, low union density among young workers is principally related to the characteristics of their jobs, the industries in which they work, and their casual status. The union movement has recognised this as an issue: inspired by the success of overseas unions in recruiting student workers, sections of the union movement in Australia have begun their own campaigns targeting student workers (Lipsig-Mumme and Nielsen 2002). It remains the case, however, that the vast majority of student workers are not represented by trade unions, locking them out of this avenue of participation in industrial relations.

In summary, previous research indicates that there are four main areas in which young workers are vulnerable, and which discussion later in this paper will indicate are particularly problematic with the introduction of the WorkChoices legislation. They are, first, young workers' general low level of pay and conditions; second, their high level of precariousness in employment, which can only increase under the legislation; third, a high level of vulnerability to exploitation, which is intensified by their low levels of unionisation, their capacity and power to bargain with employers, and the limited supports available to them when things go awry in the workplace; and fourth,, the low quality of many young workers' jobs, which contributes to a declining skills base (with both individual and societal ramifications).

The study which follows explores, for the first time, a unique data set that allows an examination of the kinds of complaints made by young workers about their jobs, the relative frequency of these complaints and their relationship to a number of demographic categories. It thus enables us to develop a more nuanced picture of young people's labour market vulnerability than have previous studies.

The Current Study

The principal aim of the research is to explore the employment-related concerns made to the Young Workers Advisory Service in Queensland, Australia's only specialist advice and advocacy service for young workers, and to speculate on how these problems might be affected by the WorkChoices Act. The specific research questions that will be addressed are:

1. What are the major employment relations problems currently for young workers in Queensland?

2. What was the frequency of reporting by complaint categories (e.g. discrimination, harassment, dismissal)?

3. For the most frequent categories of enquiry, what were the relevant characteristics of the clients reporting this problem?

Organisational Context

The Young Workers Advisory Service (YWAS) is the only community organisation in Australia which responds to youth-focused employment issues. It began operating in 2002 and is funded by the Queensland government. It assists young people under 25 in gaining free and confidential information, advice, referral and representation on issues relating to their work. The issues that YWAS advises on include employment conditions and entitlements, work contracts, discrimination, unfair dismissal, workplace bullying, apprenticeships and traineeships and sexual harassment. The service operates through a state-wide 1800 telephone number, through YWAS's website and email, and through a walk-in service in Brisbane with 5 full-time equivalent staff members. The service also delivers information services to organisations, schools and TAFE colleges.

Although YWAS is only one avenue of reporting when an employment-related issue or grievance arises (others include employers themselves, trade unions or government bodies such as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission [HREOC], the Anti-discrimination Commission or state industrial relations commissions), data collected by YWAS helps to identify the experiences of young people in their workplaces.



The sample consisted of 4,769 episodes of enquiry to YWAS over a three year period between March 2002 (when the service began) and February 2005. All clients in the sample were aged 25 years or under and were residing in Queensland at the time of contact. Relevant variables included (i) 'Type of enquiry'; (ii) 'Residence'; (iii) 'Age of client'; (iv) 'Background'; (v) 'Employment status'; (vi) 'Union membership'; (vii) 'Occupational group'; and (viii) 'Industry'. 'Type of enquiry' consisted of between one and five different types per individual contact (e.g., pregnancy discrimination, dismissal/redundancy). Enquiry categories were not mutually exclusive; that is, an individual may have reported more than one issue (for example, age discrimination and workplace harassment). More than one type of enquiry was listed for approximately half the sample.

'Residence' was coded as regional if the client lived outside the Brisbane metropolitan area and city if located in Brisbane. 'Background' was coded as either English-speaking (ESB), Non English-speaking (NESB) or Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander (Indigenous). 'Job status' was coded as the nature of the contractual working arrangement (e.g. permanent full-time, casual part-time, self-employed). 'Job classification' represented the general nature of the work performed. These groups were coded as managers/administrators (e.g., call centre manager, sales manager); professionals (e.g., pharmacists, engineers); para-professionals (e.g., nurses), tradespersons (e.g., chefs, bakers, carpenters, hairdressers), clerical workers (e.g., secretaries, administration officers), sales/personal service workers (e.g., cleaners, healthcare workers, retail employees), machine operators (e.g., textile workers), labourers (e.g., factory workers, manual labourers) and not in labour force. 'Union membership' was coded as yes or no.


Data were sourced from the YWAS electronic client database, which contained individual entries for each client. Initial data were collected via a client query contact form that was completed by QWWS staff during the first contact with the caller and which was then entered into the database. Details related to subsequent contacts or ongoing advocacy with the same person were recorded in text-based client files not examined for this study. Coding categories were originally designed to match ABS categories as closely as possible, especially job status, job classification and industry, to allow for population comparisons in annual reporting. Complaints did not need to be labelled as each type of enquiry by the young worker themselves for this code to be applied in the database. Rather, YWAS staff, who have backgrounds in industrial relations, law, social work or social sciences, entered the category of enquiry related to circumstances described by individual clients. Multiple codes of enquiry could be applied to a single person. The few vicarious enquiries received (for example, where a parent contacted the service on behalf of their child) were treated in the same way as all other cases. Consistent with privacy protocols, all data used in the research were de-identified by using identification numbers only. Data were numerically coded and imported into SPSS for analysis.


The first stage of analysis consisted of running frequencies to determine the characteristics of the total sample and the types of enquiry reported. The second stage sought to make comparisons between the demographic characteristics of the sample and the types of enquiry that were most frequently reported to the organisation. This strategy allowed for a picture to be built up of the types of industries, occupations and job classifications that were over or under-represented in each of these types of complaints. Other demographic characteristics such as gender, age and background were also explored across categories of enquiry to determine which youth were experiencing these problems.

Most demographic categories contained less than 5 per cent missing data, although two categories (industry and job classification) showed 8 per cent and 7 per cent missing data (coded as 'unknown') respectively. The reason for categories being entered as 'unknown' arose mostly as a result of situations where it was inappropriate at the time of initial contact to ask callers for personal information (especially if they were distressed as was sometimes the case). Missing data were inspected carefully for systematic patterns but appeared to be random.

Due to the categorical nature of all variables, analysis (SPSS Version 12.0) consisted largely of cross-tabulations and chi-squares for the variables of interest (e.g. type of complaint by industry) to establish macro patterns of employment-related concerns for young workers. As a result of the large sample sizes in many cells, many chi square results were statistically significant. Therefore, findings are reported conservatively using adjusted residuals of +/- 3.0 and only when percentage differences across cells were meaningful.


Characteristics of the Sample

The total number of inquiries in the study period was 4,769. Frequencies of major variables were firstly examined to gain an overall impression of the sample. Nearly two-thirds of the clients contacting the service were young women. Clients were slightly more likely to reside outside the Brisbane metropolitan area compared to those living in the capital city (53.1 per cent and 41.4 per cent respectively). Only one in 20 was from a non-English speaking or Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander background. Three quarters of Indigenous clients resided in regional areas and one-quarter in metropolitan Brisbane, whereas clients with an English speaking background and non-English speaking background were equally likely to reside in a regional or urban area. Most clients were aged between 19 and 25 years, with clients aged between 15 and 18 years representing approximately one-sixth of the sample. Only 1 per cent of clients were under 15 years of age.

By far the majority of clients indicated that they were not members of a union. Over one-third of the young people contacting the service were employed in a permanent full-time capacity, with casual part-timers making up the next biggest job status group (25.0 per cent). The two most common industries represented in the data were retail, where over one-quarter of clients were employed, and hospitality, where 18 per cent of the sample was employed. Health/community services; manufacturing; and personal/services each represented between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the sample. Regional clients were over-represented in primary industries and under-represented in finance/insurance ([chi square] = 349.6 (34), p < .001). The most commonly represented job classifications were sales/personal service workers (40.3 per cent); clerical workers (14.9 per cent); and labourers (13.5 per cent). These demographic characteristics of the study sample are illustrated in Table 1.

Types of Enquiry

Frequencies of types of inquiry that were reported by young workers during the study period and the breakdown of these inquiries by gender are presented in Table 2. In most categories of inquiry (age discrimination; disability discrimination; sex discrimination; pregnancy discrimination; sexual harassment; workplace bullying; dismissal/redundancy; and employment conditions), females were disproportionately represented. Young men and women were equally likely to report pay/remuneration issues, workers' compensation problems and concerns about occupational health and safety.

By far the most frequent types of complaints made to the service were dismissal/ redundancy; employment conditions; pay/remuneration; and workplace bullying (See Table 2). These types of inquiries were also likely to occur concurrently. For example, of those reporting problems with employment conditions, nearly one-third (31.3 per cent) also reported dismissal/redundancy issues, and of those reporting workplace bullying, 16 per cent also reported pay/conditions matters. Cases in these four categories of enquiry were further examined via cross-tabs analysis to determine the gender, ages, backgrounds, industries, job status and job classifications where these problems were most likely to occur. Differences in percentages of demographic categories are provided only where these differences are statistically significant and percentage differences are meaningful.

Dismissal / Redundancy

Dismissal/redundancy issues were cited by 1,993 individuals, or 41.8 per cent of the sample. Older youth (aged 19 to 25) were significantly more likely to report this problem than younger clients. Cases involving youth from NESB backgrounds were less likely to report that they had been dismissed or made redundant from their jobs than those from English-speaking or indigenous backgrounds. As would be expected, job status also had an effect on the likelihood of reporting dismissal at work, with permanent full-time, permanent part-time and full-time casual employees being more likely to report the grievance. Apprentices were significantly less likely to nominate this problem, most likely because of the highly regulated system under which they work, which has significant protections and processes in place regarding employment security. (3) Not surprisingly, the self-employed were also unlikely to report dismissal/redundancy. Young people employed in clerical occupations and as plant and machine operators were significantly more likely to report dismissal/redundancy problems than their counterparts in other job classifications. Table 3 illustrates these findings.

Employment Conditions

Problems related to employment conditions, which included issues such as working hours, contract arrangements and physical conditions at the workplace, were reported by 1,331 young people during the study period. A higher proportion of males reported difficulties associated with employment conditions than females. A trend that was reversed from dismissal/redundancy was that younger employees were significantly more likely to report problems with employment conditions than older youth. For example, around one-quarter of 19 to 25 year olds reported this problem, compared to over one-third of 15 to 19 year olds. Almost 60 per cent of the relatively small number of under 15s phoning the service (N = 47) reported difficulties with employment conditions.

More than a quarter of clients from most industries reported complaints in this category of enquiry. Particularly high numbers of reports (>30 per cent) came from the cultural/recreation sector; electricity/gas/water; personal services; and retail sectors. Significantly fewer enquiries in this category were derived from industry sectors associated with finance/insurance; property/business; and government/ administration/defence. Apprentices were in general more likely to describe problems with their employment conditions and less likely to report problems regarding dismissal, than other categories of worker, as were those on fixed term contracts and the self-employed. In relation to job classification, tradespersons and professionals were over-represented in this category of inquiry, while managers and plant operators were least likely to report difficulties (see Table 4).

Pay / Remuneration

Conflicts over pay/remuneration were reported by 1,242 young people. This category included issues such as being unpaid and under-paid, problems related to the timing of pay and denial of overtime allowances. Males were significantly more likely than females to report issues associated with remuneration. Younger people using the service were more likely to experience problems with both pay and employment conditions than those in the 19 to 25 age bracket. Industries of particular concern in this category of enquiry included primary industries and cultural/recreation, both of which had more than one-third of their members reporting problems with pay. Further, more than one-quarter of youth from other industries also experienced difficulties in this area. Those less likely to report pay-related complaints were from the industries government/administration/defence and the legal sector.

In relation to job status, those on fixed-term contracts were particularly likely to report issues related to pay/remuneration (more than 50 per cent). Apprentices, casual part-timers and the self-employed were also over-represented in this category. Tradespersons and labourers represented the job classifications most likely to report pay/remuneration issues, while clerical workers and managers were least likely to report this problem.

Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying was reported by 993 young people or 20.8 per cent of the sample. No statistically significant differences were evident for any of the demographic categories explored for this type of inquiry. That is, males and females and youth at different ages were equally likely to report workplace bullying. The problem was also reported in approximately equal proportions by young people across different industries, job classifications and job statuses. Thus, although relatively large numbers of clients sought advice and advocacy about workplace bullying, the problem is not specific to different types of youth or employment arrangements, but rather occurs in all types of workplaces in Queensland.


This study explored the frequency and nature of employment-related concerns reported to a community based service in Queensland, Australia. Three of the four most prevalent complaints reported to the organisation are consistent with other studies on aspects of the employment relationship in which young workers are most vulnerable, indicated in the introduction to the paper. These three areas are: youth's low level of pay and conditions (pay/remuneration); their high level of precariousness in employment (dismissal/redundancy); and their high level of vulnerability to exploitation (employment conditions). Two further areas of concern are: the low quality of many young workers' jobs, including their lack of access to training and skills upgrading, which has been identified in previous research; and workplace bullying, which constituted one-fifth of all employment-related concerns reported to YWAS. The likely effects of the new legislation on young workers and the broader implications of the data are discussed.

Prevalence of Grievances

The number of calls received by YWAS was very large and suggests a high need for the provision of a youth-focused service addressing workplace concerns. It also points to a need for increased community awareness of employment-related rights and responsibilities, especially in relation to youth-specific concerns. The availability of services that offer legal and industrial advice about employment concerns, in addition to information and referral, is very limited, especially as community legal services and legal aid generally focus on criminal and family law. Unfortunately though, the fortunes of a youth-focused service like YWAS which experiences precarious funding arrangements, are subject to the vagaries of government.

The availability of relevant services is related to a central issue about the data itself, which is how problems experienced by young people translated into enquiries to YWAS. If a young person has a grievance at work, they have a number of options available to them. In some cases, they will do nothing, in others they will attempt to seek redress internally, with their employer or manager or other person who, they believe, is able to rectify the situation. In still other cases, the first course of action may be to report the problem to an external agency such as YWAS or their union or to lodge a formal grievance with a relevant Commission. This action may also be adopted when a young person perceives that an internal complaint will result in punitive consequences or following an inadequate organisational response. The data used for the study do not provide any insights about young people who experience problems but choose not to take any action. They also do not reveal the individual decision processes in seeking redress. The very low rates of union membership, however, do suggest that the majority of employees will contact their union if they have one. Almost nine in ten young people who reported problems to YWAS were not members of unions, even fewer than indicated in 1999 ABS figures showing that young workers' union density was then less than 16 per cent (ABS, 2000). There has been widespread speculation about the underlying reasons for low union membership among young people. Some research suggests that rising occupational aspirations have fostered a more individualistic orientation to the employment relationship (Lowe and Krahn 2000; O'Bannon 2001) while other writers argue that young people are more positive about unions than adults, but are more likely to be employed in industries and occupations that have low unionisation rates (Waddington and Kerr 2002; Gomez, Gunderson and Meltz 2002). Union membership undoubtedly affords employees protection from many of the problems explored in this data and a formal avenue of redress should difficulties occur. The high concurrent rates of dismissal and other types of problems in the data also suggest that many young people only make an enquiry to YWAS following an internal complaint which is inadequately responded to or results in the termination of employment.

Other characteristics of the overall sample also reveal the types of youth most vulnerable to experiencing problems in their employment, that is, young women, casual employees and those employed in retail and hospitality. Although youth employed in more precarious forms of employment are generally considered to be more at risk for internal labour market problems, more than one-third of the clients who contacted YWAS had permanent full-time jobs. Consequently, this was the most commonly reported job status in all enquiry categories. This high proportion of calls from full-time youth is likely to be because their permanency affords them more employment rights and that they are more aware of these rights and willing to seek redress should problems occur. Despite this, it is casual and contingent employees who are most vulnerable in their workplaces and who are, as suggested by several sources (e.g., HREOC 1999; Hunter 1992), likely to under-report problems internally. Casuals (both full- and part-time) constituted one-third of all cases in this dataset, illustrating that these workers are willing to contact an external agency to seek advice and assistance.

Nearly two-thirds of clients were women. Although it is possible this statistic reflects a greater propensity among young women than young men to report problems, it may also reveal the greater marginalisation of women in paid employment and the greater numbers of females employed in retail and hospitality, industries which made up approximately half of all cases in the data. While the proportion of young retail workers in the sample reporting problems was somewhat less than the proportion of young retail employees across Australia (26 per cent compared to 34 per cent, ABS 2004), the percentage of young hospitality workers reporting difficulties in their workplaces was double what one would expect based on young workers' share of the hospitality jobs (18 per cent compared to 9 per cent, ABS 2004). Compounding the vulnerability of these sectors, or perhaps even the main cause, is that they are the industries where union membership is lowest (ABS 2000).

In addition to the four most prevalent areas of complaint reported in more detail later, YWAS received nearly 600 calls about discrimination in the study period. These included most allowable categories under sex and other discrimination legislation including age, disability, pregnancy, gender, race and family responsibilities. A further 344 cases of sexual harassment were also reported, indicating the persistent and widespread nature of discrimination and harassment for young people in Queensland, despite the outlawing of these behaviours for over two decades.

Pay and Remuneration

In this study, more than 1,200 young people reported problems such as being unpaid and under-paid, and issues related to the timing of pay and denial of overtime allowances, suggesting that this is an area of significant concern. Under WorkChoices legislation, young people's already low levels of pay and conditions can only decline further. The new Australian Fair Pay Commission has the capacity to alter the current relativities between junior and adult award wages ('juniors' being those under 18, 20 or 21 years of age, depending on the relevant award). While in dollar terms the rates of junior workers cannot fall, the AFPC must have regard to providing minimum wages that ensure that juniors are 'competitive in the labour market'. The AFPC will be able to determine 'special Federal Minimum Wages' for particular groups of junior employees. The implications of all this for junior workers are not yet clear, but based on the general Federal government rhetoric of wages being 'competitive', many young workers can expect their wages to fall relative to adult wages. Over time, this could mean a considerable decrease in junior workers' earning power.

Not only junior workers are likely to suffer with respect to pay; all young people will potentially be disadvantaged. The abolition of the 'no disadvantage test' will result in lower overall employment standards, with the lower paid (amongst whom young people are disproportionately represented) suffering more (Waring and Lewer 2001 ; Merlo 2000; Mitchell et al 2003). This is due to two main reasons. The first is young people's higher coverage by award conditions only; in 2004, 60 per cent of workers in 'accommodation, cafes and restaurants', and 40 per cent of workers in 'retail trade', the two industries in which young workers cluster, were covered by 'awards only', with most other industries having less than 20 per cent of their workforce on awards only (ABS 2005). Awards, while falling behind in relative wage levels since the introduction of enterprise bargaining, have at least maintained a broad safety net of wages and conditions for the low-paid. Despite this, awards under the new legislation will be radically stripped of their broader safety net provisions, and replacement of AIRC national wage cases by the processes of the new Australian Fair Pay Commission is likely to result in a very low set of minimum standards (Peetz 2005).

The second reason for lower pay resulting from the new legislation is young people's high vulnerability to cost-cutting Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), which weaken employees' bargaining power (Peetz 2005). Research has shown that cost-cutting AWAs (as opposed to union-replacement AWAs, where wage premia are paid; Roan, Bramble & Lafferty 2001) tend to cluster in certain industries, particularly in hospitality: 14.2 per cent of the hospitality workforce, as opposed to 5.9 per cent of workers generally, are covered by AWAs (OEA 2006). Van Barneveld's (2004) study of hospitality AWAs concluded that they are one-sided and that employees, even when aggrieved, rarely report underpayments. Research shows that AWAs in general provide for longer working hours than other agreements, but that these hours are usually paid at single ordinary-time rates, not overtime rates (ACIRRT 2001); indeed, hours are often almost the sole focus of AWAs (Cole, Callus and Van Barneveld 2001), and such time flexibility has been demonstrated to be to the main advantage of employers and for the main purpose of boosting profitability via cost reduction, rather than improving productivity (Barnes and Fieldes 2000; Mitchell and Fetter 2003). This has implications for young workers, as it will drive up working hours for student-workers (particularly those from low income families) and thus impact on their studies.4 It also has implications for young workers who are trying to support themselves, as it will contribute to an increase in poverty amongst this group. Even more young people are likely to become part of the 'working poor', and thus will become discouraged job seekers, leading to problems in mental and physical well-being (see for example Morell, Taylor and Kerr 1998).

Employment contracts that are based on casual part-time and fixed term Arrangements--job status categories that were also over-represented in this Category--will only compound this vulnerability. In particular, the problem of high casualisation in Australia (Pocock, Buchanan and Campbell 2004) is likely to worsen under the WorkChoices legislation (May, Campbell and Burgess 2005).

The introduction of the 'Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard', while a soothing and benign title, will also act to decrease current standards (Group of 151 Australian Academics 2005, p. 9). There will be differential effects on young people according to their circumstances. Currently, according to this study, a higher proportion of 15 to 18 year olds (many of whom would have been student workers) reported problems with pay than their older counterparts, suggesting that some employers will exploit the vulnerability of the very young (especially because of their decreased experience and awareness of employment rights) by withholding remuneration or under-paying them. Males were over-represented in this category of complaint, although this may be related to the greater numbers of males employed as tradespeople and labourers; job classifications which were particularly vulnerable to this problem.

Under the new legislation, the existing lack of access of those under AWAs to family friendly provisions (DEWR 2004) will rise. Analysis has shown that as a whole the WorkChoices package does not promote work and care (Pocock and Masterman-Smith 2005). WorkChoices will particularly disadvantage young parents who are attempting to combine work and family and who are already at an economic disadvantage simply as a result of their youth. This will have an increasingly marked impact on young women.

Overall, the Act seeks to increase the scope for management to impose unilateral decisions upon workers, including a much wider capacity than at present to impose individual agreements even in workplaces where there are already collective agreements and most employees wish these to continue. The most vulnerable, and those having the lowest wages and conditions, will suffer most under this unilateral decision-making.


A staggering 2,000 cases of dismissal/redundancy were reported to YWAS during the three year data collection period, indicating that precariousness of employment is a major area of concern for young workers. In contrast to pay/remuneration, where younger youth were over-represented, older youth (19 to 25 year olds) were disproportionately likely to report this problem. At least some of these cases are likely to be the result of redundancies or constructive dismissals (which result from severe cuts to working hours), when young people become too 'old' for the youth wage and therefore more expensive to employ. If youth wages decrease, however, young people will become cheaper to employ, thus potentially increasing their likelihood of employment, albeit at a reduced wage and therefore needing to work more hours to earn the same amount of money. But they will still face the same 'barrier' to employment once they are eligible to be paid an adult rate. Another important finding was that industries and job classifications were equally represented in this category of complaint, with the exception of apprentices, who were less likely to report dismissal. The high degree of regulation of apprenticeship contracts, with the involvement of state agencies, would explain this finding. Overall, though, dismissal/redundancy was not only frequently reported but was a major problem across all types of jobs and in all industry categories.

Job security will become even more precarious under the new Act. The significant curtailment of redress for unfair dismissal will automatically lead to lower job security. These curtailments include exemptions for organisations with fewer than 100 employees and the inclusion of 'operational issues' as a reason for termination (Group of 151 Australian Academics 2005). These changes will have differential effects on different groups of young workers. It may not directly affect the young student-worker in a buoyant labour market, who is often a casual in any case, as much as the young worker embarked upon a full-time career. As the data for this study reveal, in contrast to pay/remuneration problems where the traditionally more vulnerable job status categories (part-time casuals, fixed-term contracts) were more evident, young people in more secure job categories (permanent full-time, permanent part-time and full-time casuals) were more likely to report dismissal/redundancy. This tendency probably reflects a greater likelihood of those who perceive their jobs to be more secure and permanent, including full-time casuals who are often long-term employees, to make a formal complaint when that security is threatened or lost. Those employed on a casual or fixed term basis well understand the precariousness of these arrangements and are unlikely to complain when the employment relationship breaks down. Thus, the impact of the WorkChoices legislation on permanent employees will be significant.

Employment Conditions

A total of 1,300 cases of complaints about working conditions were reported to YWAS. Young men were over-represented. This may be because the types of problems this category represents (such as conflicts about working hours, contract arrangements and physical conditions at the workplace) disproportionately affect men who make up the majority of employees in two occupations, tradesperson and manager, that were over-represented in this category.

Vulnerability to exploitation can only increase. The new Act severely curtails the capacity of workers to join unions, especially because of the new sets of conditions and detailed prescription placed on union officials' entry to workplaces (Group of 151 Australian Academics 2005, p. 19). This will impact more significantly where union reach and union density are already very low, as they are in the case of young workers. Indeed, as noted above, nearly nine-tenths of young people who reported problems to YWAS were un-unionised, a factor that increases their vulnerability to exploitation and one that will be exacerbated following changes in the unfair dismissal provisions. The union movement currently faces a variety of challenges, one of which is to organise and assist young workers, a challenge of which the movement is very aware (ACTU 2003; Lipsig-Mumme and Nielsen 2002).

Previously, the young worker who is permanent, or a regular casual, could ask a question about their employment conditions and had redress if they were dismissed for doing so. Under the new legislation, they run a high risk of losing their job for asking a question, with no redress. Young workers in a recent study expressed very high levels of anxiety about bargaining individually with their employers (Denniss, 2005). It is likely that, aware of their lack of bargaining power and access to institutional support and information, young people will simply elect to remain silent and that exploitation will continue and intensify (McDonald and Dear 2005). This overall lack of voice may be differentially experienced across the states, depending on the availability of youth-focussed services that ameliorate this tendency. It may also be differentially experienced across different groups of youth. Like problems with pay/remuneration, the employment conditions category in this study was more evident amongst younger youth, including those aged 15 to 18 years and particularly so (despite overall smaller numbers) for those under 15 years. This vulnerability to exploitation is exacerbated by the fact that very young workers are often seeking entry level positions, and may thus be more willing than other job applicants to accept inferior wages and conditions (Dennis 2005, p. 146). Despite assurances of the government to the contrary, there is little evidence that there will be increased employment as a result of the unfair dismissal changes (Freyens and Oslington 2005).

Low Quality Jobs

Low job quality and lack of access to training and skill upgrading is not specifically an issue highlighted in the YWAS data, although this is an important aspect of the picture for young workers under WorkChoices. While the Act recognises the importance of skills issues, especially as they relate to school-based apprenticeships, expert commentary suggests that this is 'little more than a piecemeal response to the challenges concerning skill formation in a modern economy', and that without a broader attempt at policy development and more collaboration between key stakeholders, skill shortage issues will not be addressed (Group of 151 Australian Academics 2005, pp. 28-29). This is clearly a complex issue which requires a combined 'joining up' of policy initiatives under education, training, welfare and industrial relations. In any case, alleged 'skill shortages' are frequently simply a lack of 'decent work', which is achieved by improving labour standards across the board (Group of 151 Australian Academics 2005, p. 30, citing Standing 1999).

Workplace Bullying

It is of great concern that almost 1,000 cases of workplace harassment/bullying were reported to YWAS in the study period. Workplace harassment has been receiving increased attention in recent years. The emotional injury and stress caused by this covert form of occupational violence is considered to at least equal the trauma following overt assaults (Quinlan, Mayhew and Bohle 2001) and has been estimated to cost Australian employers between six and 36 billion dollars per annum, and $17,000 to $25,000 per case (Sheehan 2003).

The findings also revealed that workplace bullying occurred in relatively equal frequencies in a range of different employment environments and across diverse job types. Although public awareness of the problem appears to be increasing, and a number of organisations such as the Beyond Bullying Association raise awareness of the issue (Sheehan, Barker and Rayner 1999), there is clear a need for further education, research and the development of regulatory structures that aim to minimise the consequences of workplace harassment in the labour market. Although the impact of WorkChoices legislation on workplace bullying is difficult to determine, and appears not to have be been discussed previously, the high concurrent reports of bullying and dismissal in the data suggest that this problem is unlikely to improve under the new Act.

Limitations and Future Research

Extrapolating these results to the wider community must be done with some caution. The problems reported here are not necessarily representative of the experiences of all youth, many of whom have positive and productive relationships with their employers. Further, we cannot know for certain from these data the reasons for higher levels of reporting in certain areas. For example, high levels of complaints may indicate that frequent problems are indeed occurring, but could also mean that informal resolution of internal complaints through organisational procedures is not operating effectively. Paradoxically, it has been suggested that workplaces or industries that have higher rates of complaints may reflect the fact that employees feel secure in their employment and confident that the complaints procedure available to them will be effective (HREOC 1999).

Another limitation of the study was related to the secondary data set used for the analysis. For example, because the data were not collected for research purposes, they did not contain sufficient detail for examining some potentially important variables such as the psychological or employment-related impacts of the specific problem. Future primary research that explores these impacts would be useful. Further, the quality of data records was slightly inconsistent in some areas. This was partly due to constraints in asking for personal information when callers were distressed, as they sometimes were, and partly due to variations in the level of experience of YWAS staff who took the calls. In order to offset the limitations related to secondary data, it was verified that all staff had formal qualifications and/or training in industrial relations issues, thereby ensuring correct identification of type of complaint. As much information as possible was also sought from YWAS staff about the circumstances of the original data generation and processing (Heaton 2003).

Finally, of the problems uncovered in our empirical analysis, it is difficult to accurately predict which of these may become more prevalent than others under the WorkChoices legislation. The findings do, however, provide a useful 'baseline' level of the types of serious issues faced by young workers in Queensland which can be utilised in future comparative research pre- and post-WorkChoices.


This study has provided a detailed picture of the incidence and patterns of young people's employment relations problems in Queensland as reported to a community organisation specialising in 'grass roots' advice, assistance and advocacy for working youth. The organisation was ideally placed to reveal patterns of employment problems on a scale broader than those traditionally dealt with in the industrial relations literature, especially studies that focus on one industry or sector or statistics which are collected by agencies such as industrial relations, anti-discrimination and human rights commissions. The findings suggest that a substantial number of young people in a wide range of industries, occupations and employment arrangements continue to experience serious problems at work. As greater numbers and diversity of youth participate in the labour market and contribute to Australia's place in an increasingly global economy, it is hoped the results of this study will contribute to government and organisational policy development that will improve the structural mechanisms affecting young people's employment opportunities and ultimately, the quality of their working lives. The immediate future however seems bleak. On balance, the evidence is that the WorkChoices legislation will contribute not to an increase of the quality in young people's working lives, but potentially a significant decrease.


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(1) These various categorisations, and the recent growth of the student-worker category, indicate that older, linear models of transition to adulthood and future careers are becoming increasingly problematic (Wyn and Dwyer 1999). It is beyond the scope of this paper to speculate about the reasons for this trend.

(2) Figures of union density by age have not been published by ABS since 1999. The ACTU publishes more recent but unsourced figures on its website, giving union density of 15 to 24 year olds at 13 per cent (ACTU 2003).

(3) Detailed legislation governing all aspects of apprenticeships and traineeships exists in all states; in Queensland, apprentices are covered by the Vocational Education, Training and Employment Act 2000 (Qld).

(4) To a point, some part-time work has been found to be beneficial for school students; but long hours can have a detrimental effect on study and future life chances; see for example Vickers at al (2003)and Robinson (1999).

Paula McDonald *, Janis Bailey ** Damian Oliver ** Barbara Pini *

* Faculty of Business, Queensland University of Technology

** Department of Industrial Relations, Griffith University
Table 1. Characteristics of the sample (N = 4,769).

Demographic category N %

Gender Male 1,724 36.2
 Female 3,013 63.2
Age Under 15 47 1.0
 15 to 18 773 16.2
 19 to 25 3,557 79.5
Background ESB 4,279 89.7
 NESB 179 3.8
 Indigenous 61 1.3
Union membership Union member 105 2.2
 Non-union member 4,250 89.1
Industry Primary industry 141 3.0
 Communication 132 2.8
 Cultural / recreation 131 2.7
 Education 86 1.8
 Elect / gas / water 203 4.3
 Finance / insurance 94 2.0
 Gov / admin / defence 44 0.9
 Health / community services 280 5.9
 Hospitality 857 18.0
 Legal 36 0.8
 Manufacturing 350 7.3
 Personal services 313 6.6
 Property / business 234 4.9
 Transport / storage 119 2.5
 Retail / wholesale 1,237 25.9
Job status Apprentice 282 5.9
 Casual full-time 402 8.4
 Casual part-time 1,190 25.0
 Perm part-time 328 6.9
 Traineeship 188 3.9
 Fixed term contract 50 1.0
 Permanent full-time 1,823 38.2
 Self employed 35 0.7
 Unemployed 101 2.1
Job classification Clerical 709 14.9
 Labourers 642 13.5
 Manager / admin 222 4.7
 Para-professionals 200 4.2
 Plant / mach operators 72 1.5
 Professionals 114 2.4
 Sales / personal services 1,924 40.3
 Tradespersons 424 8.9
 Not in labour force 40 0.8

Table 2. Categories of enquiry (>20), by gender. A single individual
could report more than one type of enquiry.

 Total Total Males Females
Category of Enquiry (N) (%) (%) * (%) *

Age discrimination 80 1.7 30.0 68.8
Disability discrimination 174 3.6 37.9 61.5
Pregnancy discrimination 149 3.1 2.0 ** 98.0
Sex / gender discrimination 80 1.7 25.0 75.0
Race discrimination 41 0.8 48.8 51.2
Sexual harassment 344 7.2 15.1 84.3
Family responsibilities 58 1.2 10.4 89.6
Union information 353 7.4 40.5 58.9
Workers compensation 121 2.5 53.7 44.6
Workplace bullying 993 20.8 20.0 65.2
Dismissal / redundancy 1,993 41.8 35.1 64.7
Employment conditions 1,331 27.9 39.7 59.8
Pay / remuneration 1,242 26.0 44.5 55.2
Occupational health & safety 130 2.7 47.7 51.5

* Percentages in each demographic category may not equal 100 per cent
due to missing data

** Several cases of pregnancy discrimination were reported by men on
behalf of females (for example, fathers making enquiries about their

Table 3. Significant demographic categories for cases involving
reports of dismissal / redundancy issues (N = 1,993).

 % reporting
 Dismissal/ [chi
Demographic category N redundancy square]

Age Under 15 10 21.3 49.9 (4),
 15 to 18 282 36.5 p <.001
 19 to 25 1,573 44.2

Background ESB 1,864 43.6 44.3 (3),
 NESB 55 30.7 p <.001
 Indigenous 27 44.3

Job status Apprentice 95 33.7 s207.7
 Casual full-time 189 47.0 (13), p
 Casual part-time 496 41.7 <0.001
 Perm part-time 158 48.0
 Traineeship 80 42.6
 Fixed term contract 20 40.0
 Permanent full-time 892 48.9
 Self employed 6 17.1
 Unemployed 8 7.9

Job classi- Clerical 351 49.5 89.43 (9),
 fication Labourers 262 40.8 p <.001
 Manager / admin 98 44.1
 Para-professionals 91 45.5
 Plant / machine opera- 35 48.6
 Professionals 39 34.2
 Sales / personal serv- 855 44.4
 Tradespersons 169 39.9
 Not in labour force 6 15.0

More than a quarter of clients from most industries reported complaints
in this category of enquiry. Particularly high numbers of reports (>30
per cent) came from the cultural/ recreation sector; electricity/gas/
water; personal services; and retail

Table 4. Significant demographic categories for cases involving reports
of problems with employment conditions (N = 1,331).

 % reporting
 ment [chi
Demographic category N conditions square]

Gender Male 529 30.7 9.9 (2),
 Female 796 26.4 P = .007

Age Under 15 28 59.6 61.0 (4),
 15 to 18 270 34.9 p <.001
 19 to 25 960 27.0
Industry Primary industry 38 27.0 62.8 (17),
 Communication 28 21.2 p <.001
 Cultural / recreation 40 30.5
 Education 24 27.9
 Elect / gas / water 65 32.0
 Finance / insurance 18 19.1
 Gov / admin / defence 4 9.1
 Health / community 82 29.3
 Hospitality 253 29.5
 Legal 9 25.0
 Manufacturing 99 28.3
 Personal services 117 37.4
 Property / business 43 18.4
 Transport / storage 31 26.1
 Retail / wholesale 385 31.1
Job status Apprentice 110 39.0 60.9 (13),
 Casual full-time 94 23.4 p <.001
 Casual part-time 370 31.1
 Perm part-time 101 30.7
 Traineeship 53 28.2
 Fixed term contract 19 38.0
 Permanent full-time 470 25.8
 Self employed 14 40.0
 Unemployed 24 23.8
Job classi- Clerical 167 23.6 48.8 (9),
 fication Labourers 187 29.1 p <.001
 Manager / admin 47 21.2
 Para-professionals 61 30.5
 Plant / machine 15 20.8
 Professionals 39 34.2
 Sales / personal 589 30.6
 Tradespersons 147 34.7
 Not in labour force 10 25.0

Table 5. Significant demographic categories for cases involving
reports of problems with pay / remuneration (N = 1,242).

 % reporting
 pay / remu- [chi
Demographic category N neration square]

Gender Male 553 32.1 51.0 (2),
 Female 686 22.8 p <.001

Age Under 15 20 42.6 45.0 (4),
 15 to 18 262 33.9 p <.001
 19 to 25 890 25.0
Industry Primary industry 49 34.8 81.5 (17),
 Communication 38 28.8 p <.001
 Cultural / recreation 45 34.4
 Education 21 24.4
 Elect /gas / water 65 32.0
 Finance / insurance 24 25.5
 Gov / admin / defence 4 9.1
 Health / community 51 18.2
 Hospitality 260 30.3
 Legal 6 16.7
 Manufacturing 92 26.3
 Personal services 89 28.4
 Property / business 50 21.4
 Transport / storage 30 25.2
 Retail / wholesale 347 28.1
Job status Apprentice 92 32.6 96.46, (13),
 Casual full-time 102 25.4 p < .001
 Casual part-time 389 32.7
 Perm part-time 80 24.3
 Traineeship 45 23.9
 Fixed term contract 26 52.0
 Permanent full-time 405 22.2
 Self employed 13 37.1
 Unemployed 6 5.9
Job classi- Clerical 142 20.0 70.3 (9),
 fication Labourers 208 32.4 p <.001
 Manager / admin 50 22.5
 Para-professionals 56 28.0
 Plant / mach operators 22 30.6
 Professionals 29 25.4
 Sales / personal 534 27.8
 Tradespersons 136 32.1
 Not in labour force 3 7.5
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Title Annotation:Contributed Article
Author:McDonald, Paula; Bailey, Janis; Oliver, Damian; Pini, Barbara
Publication:Australian Bulletin of Labour
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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