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How can young workers protect themselves from exploitation in the workplace?

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In today’s economy, part-time employment is becoming an increasingly competitive sector. We are seeing many more industries filled with young workers, desperate to earn money to save, get themselves through university or help them to fund their new lives away from their parents and guardians.

Teenagers as young as 16 are beginning their careers but some are not even aware of their rights as young employees. Employers in various fields such as hospitality, sales and private tutoring may seek out young workers because of their reduced minimum wage (for under 18s, it’s £4.62), their eagerness to work and potentially their unawareness on what can and can’t slide in a workplace.

Employee rights isn’t something widely discussed in schools, so when a young adult is plunged into the world of work, they are at serious risk of being exploited and may not even be aware of it.

What are your rights as a young worker?

16 and 17-year olds cannot work more than 8 hours a day or more than 40 hours a week.

In some workplaces, working hours may be arranged in a very informal way. This means things are not recorded officially and cannot be referred back to. It is important that, as a young worker, you are not working more than the legal hours allowed for a 16/17-year old.

Minimum wage is different depending on your age

It may seem a little complicated since there are different minimum wages set but it is important that you know exactly how much you should be getting paid. The National Minimum wage (NMW) and the National Living wage (NLW) are calculated differently and can be confused for each other. The NMW is agreed by trade unions and businesses and is the minimum pay for all workers baring apprentices. The NLW is a calculated percentage of the average earnings of the nation. This is the minimum wage for people over 23. Both the NMW and NLW are raised every year. In agency work, companies tend to employ young people to get away with paying a smaller minimum wage. If you are 16-17-years-old and struggling to find employment, your best bet may be agency work, but tread carefully with this industry.

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Breaks are a legal requirement

It may seem like a mundane issue but breaks are a legal requirement in any job and must be adhered to. If a shift is longer than 6 hours, all workers must have a 20 minute break. This could be paid or unpaid and this depends on the employment contract. Under 16 year-olds are entitled to a 20 minute break every 4 hours. Sometimes, in fast-paced jobs like hospitality, employers may forget or even choose to not give breaks. If this happens, you are well within your rights to ask for a break and it should be given to you. Even if you’re not tired or do not want a break, it’s always a good idea to rest and let your mind focus on other things.

Good things to know before beginning your job search

0-hour contracts can be a blessing and a curse

A 0-hour contract means that you are not obligated to work any hours in the week and your employer is not obligated to give you any hours in the week. This means that you can work whenever you want and this is a massive plus for students whose schedule isn’t always set in stone. 0-hour contracts are often given by agencies who have hundreds of workers on their payroll. However, employers benefit too as they have many workers ready to pick up shifts at the drop of a hat. Employers are also not obligated to give employees sick pay or holiday pay as they aren’t on proper contracts, even if they work as much as a contracted worker would. Possibly the biggest exploiter of 0-hour contracts would be Sports Direct. 90% of Sports Direct employees were on 0-hour contracts and were uncertain whether they’d get work from one week to the next. Sports Direct owner, Mike Ashley, was called on to reduce the 0-hour contracts by many people, including UK politicians. Ashley apologised and promised to turn the business into “one of the best employers in Britain”. If you're looking for steady work, with 0-hour contracts, shifts might not always be there for you. 0-hour contracts are best for people who don’t need consistent pay checks and just want to earn a little bit of money on the side.

Commission-based jobs are a difficult first job

In a commission-based job there is no minimum wage, you are paid a percentage or all of what you sell on your own back. Some commission-based jobs include sales and marketing, i.e. encouraging people to purchase something on the phone or in the street. These jobs are highly dependent on you and so you need a lot of patience and a lot of charm. The downside of jobs like these is that you have to work extremely hard for a paycheck that isn’t reflective of the hours you’ve put in. The reason people want to work in this kind of job is because if you do well, you do WELL. The highest earners in this industry earn a lot more than other industries such as hospitality. It is a ladder and getting to the top means big bucks but many are stuck on the first wrung for a long time. A commission-based job is relatively easy to get if you are a young worker since young people have time to waste and don’t necessarily need a steady income but if you aren’t going into sales or marketing for the long term, starting a commission-based job in this field is ill-advised as you won’t see large paychecks for a long time.

Bullying doesn’t just happen in school

Unfortunately, workplace bullying can be much more cruel than anything you’d see on the playground. Entering a new workplace may feel scary and you may feel like an outsider for a bit since everyone knows each other. This is normal, but no one should be purposely excluding you or acting off just because you are new. People aren’t always nice and you’ll almost definitely encounter a bully in the workplace at some point in your life. If this happens. do not keep quiet about it. You may think it will blow over, but 9 times out of 10, bullying gets worse and it may have been avoided if you addressed the issue earlier. Managers and supervisors should be there to help you through this but if you feel like they are a part of the bullying or do not seem to care, contact the HR department of the company. If the company does not have this, or is a very small business, then it may be down to you to confront whoever is causing you hassle. It is a daunting experience and one that no one should have to go through, but in life you have to learn to back yourself. If things don't seem to be changing you may simply have to quit. It isn’t fair and it may not be your fault but prioritise yourself at any opportunity. Going to a depressing work environment will drain you and kill your mood. You don’t have to be best buddies with your colleagues, but having a civil relationship makes work bearable and if you don’t have this, you may have to look for something else.

Contracts are there to protect you

Informal jobs such as tutoring or cleaning may not require contracts as such as there may be an informal agreement between the employer and employee. In these cases, you may not be at risk of exploitation but always remember, no contract means you’ve got less protection from exploitation. A contract is a formal and legal agreement between your employer and you to ensure that you are given the right number of hours, fair holiday and sick pay and the right wage amongst other things. If your employer or yourself do not stick to the agreement, you can refer to the contract. In the case of disputes, no contract means you may have to accept that a verbal agreement won’t hold up. However, this is not always the case and you should ALWAYS seek advice (see next section for advisory organisations) if you think you are being exploited - contract or no contract. Contracts are always a plus and make sure to ask if a contract has not been discussed. Some employers may prefer no contract but will still provide one if asked.

There are people who can help you!

No matter where you work or who you work for, there is always someone you can turn to for help. In larger companies, the HR department usually deals with workplace disputes so they should be your first call. If you feel more comfortable with a manager, then they can also be approached. However, if going to anyone at your place of work is not possible for whatever reason then there are external organisations that can be contacted. Before going to them, try and address the problem in writing, so there is evidence of the dispute. It’s also a good idea to record your hours and wages even if your job has a rota sheet or clock-in app, just in case you are being underpaid.

Who to call for advice and support

For general advice, your parents, guardians and teachers will know more about your rights and can offer informal advice.

For more professional advice, check out Acas. Acas is an organisation that provides free advice on issues in the workplace. Their website is filled with helpful info and their telephone advisors are ready to hear your issue and offer personal advice for free. You can visit their website at: or call them on 0300 123 1100. Their helpline is open Monday - Friday, from 8am - 6pm.

Unfortunately, if the issue has to take a more legal route, chances are you will be forking out for legal fees. However, many disputes are usually solved before it gets that serious.

Remember that just because you may be a young worker, doesn’t mean you should get treated any different. Working at a young age is good and provides you with useful skills, but try to make sure you don't let your job consume you and all your time. There is plenty of time to be busy with work when you get older and have rent and bills to pay for. Any adult will tell you to enjoy your youth while you can, so try to prioritise that if possible!

Abrehet is our Arts & Culture Editor and a third year student studying BA Theatre & Arabic at the University of Leeds. She is pursuing a career in theatre directing and screenwriting, and is interested in foreign languages and cultures and filmmaking. Her Instagram handle is @abi_semra.

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