I Was Exploited At Work. Here’s How I Got My Rights Back And Kept My Job.

I Was Exploited At Work. Here’s How I Got My Rights Back And Kept My Job.

When the words were coming out of his mouth, I knew there was something wrong. I knew. Not just a “gut instinct” but, legally, I knew he was misinformed.

It was my first day at a new job. I was being toured around the “office” by my boss. In truth it was just his parents’ house.

“You will eat out here,” he said, pointing to the deck outside, with a couple of chairs and a table. “You are allowed a 15 minute meal break each day.”

Anyone reading this has hopefully picked up that something is wrong with that. For my 6-hour shift I was entitled to an unpaid 30 minute meal break, plus a paid 10 minute break.

I didn’t know all those details then, but I knew 15 minutes for the whole day wasn’t right. It was the first of many red flags.

After initially telling me he couldn’t guarantee me more than 6 hours of work a day, he pressured me into working 10. This is all with a 15 minute break for the day. For toilet breaks or to stretch my legs, I had to ask his permission.

 movie lisa kudrow jewish jew romy and micheles high school reunion GIF

When I did have lunch, seated alone outside — no matter the weather — he would watch from the window and time me.

We’d agreed I would start work at 8am because that’s the earliest my bus could get me there. One morning, when I was dropped off, he confronted me about not arriving earlier.

“My starting time is 8am,” I told him.

“But, that’s because of your bus. If you’re getting dropped off, arrive earlier. Text me and be here by 7am next time.”

Throughout this whole period, I would tell myself, “This is just to pay the bills. This is just for the money.”

That became a pretty poor excuse when I discovered I hadn’t been paid for weeks of work and when I was paid, there was a huge discrepancy between what I received and the hourly rate the job had been advertised at.  

I had a pretty big collection of proverbial red flags in this job. And by red flags I really mean examples of how I was being treated unfairly. The reason I’m sharing this isn’t to get sympathy but to illustrate that this isn’t such an unusual story for so many of us, and it can happen even when you know it doesn’t feel right.

I didn’t know how ‘usual’ it was for young people to have their rights exploited, to whatever extent, until I looked for it. FYA spoke about it in this article based on info from the Fair Work Ombudsman saying that even though young people comprise 16% of the workforce, 25% of the calls the Fair Work Ombudsman receive are young people looking for help.

Having evidence of how I was being exploited, yet wanting to keep my job because I needed the money led me to a pretty strange crossroads. I feel like I’m a pretty switched on person who isn’t afraid to speak up. But there was the money thing. I decided instead of making a scene or upping and leaving I’d come up with a plan of how I could get my rights back with the hope that I’d also get to keep the job. Here’s how I went about it.

  1. I changed my mindset about work being a right, not a ‘privilege’.

 work job working GIF

Hear me out. I’m not a precious snowflake saying I am entitled to work in whatever position, whenever I demand. But I realised I was thinking of myself as lucky to have a job in the first place, rather than it being my right to be compensated fairly for the work I was doing. This mindset is what enabled my situation to spiral out of control.

Every time something more was asked of me — to work longer hours, to eat my lunch faster — a voice in my head told me I was walking on thin ice.

“If you don’t get to work at 7am, he may just fire you. This is a privilege.” Or, “since, I’m so lucky to be working I should probably defer my uni exams because he won’t let me have time off.”

Repeat after me: This is my right to work and be paid fairly for what I’m doing. It’s not luck. I have worked hard and I deserve to be here.

You can read more on your workplace rights here.

  1. Do your research on what is and isn’t fair.

Gosh, this sounds simple but it wasn’t for me. When I actually looked into it I learnt that with rights, come work agreements (and legally binding contracts).

A terrible combination of desperation, the mindset about being “lucky” to have a job, and trying not to rock the boat, I never asked for a work agreement. That meant I didn’t get the following things:

  • agreed pay rate
  • agreed working hours
  • agreed job title and duties I had to perform
  • agreed pay days
  • agreed method to terminate contract

Failure to have a working agreement or contract in place meant I had very little to support my case for the pay rate I thought we’d agreed to. The only evidence I had was the advertised amount, but it was fiercely argued by my boss that he never confirmed that amount. I know now I could have also just checked the Award wage I was entitled to here. But, you know, hindsight, etc.

  1. Document everything. I mean, EVERYTHING.

 bored gravity falls writing dipper pretend GIF

I started to write down all of the things that were happening. Not exhaustive diary entries, just notes with a date, time and description of behaviour. Not only did it mean I could remember the behaviour (rather than file it away in the back of my mind under T for THINGS I NEVER WANT TO THINK ABOUT AGAIN), it meant I had evidence.

It meant when I brought it up with my boss (and we’ll get to that) and he questioned  whether it even happened at all, I was able to say, “actually, on the 10th of August X happened.”

For those of you playing at home, documentation is also handy to have if you decide you want to take it further.

  1. Talk to someone about it.

It doesn’t have to be everybody. I felt so incredibly ashamed that I had put myself in such a position, even though I realise now I shouldn’t  be the one to feel ashamed.  

I felt stupid for going along with it. I felt powerless to change it. I felt hypocritical for all my usual bravado when it’s someone else, yet I couldn’t stand up for myself. All of these feelings equated to silence.

If you’re in my situation and you don’t feel like talking to a friend or family member about the experience, at least seek help or advice from a legal body, like the Fair Work Ombudsman or even The Young Workers Centre if you’re based in Victoria. Yes, it sounds like a big deal. But, they exist to to help you understand your rights and responsibilities. Sometimes, what you need is someone to validate that what is occurring to you is wrong and let you know your options. Resources that exist to help with mental health issues are also a great idea, like beyondblue and Lifeline.

  1. Climb hills, not mountains.

So now that I knew my rights, had examples of the behaviour that wasn’t right, and had opened up about it to people that could help, I wanted to go about getting what I was entitled to.

A huge part of me wanted to unleash my inner Darryl Kerrigan and fight against what wasn’t right by reminding myself I’m a fierce, independent human being who is entitled to live in a world free of discrimination and injustice. And that I should march in and demand what I am entitled to, dammit. And, if they say no, I’ll take them all the way to the High Court of Australia!

But I didn’t feel like I was in a position where I could demand my rights, without the distinct threat of being fired or having their shifts disappear. Because, you know, as our dear friends Destiny’s Child once said — bills, bills, bills.

One of the strategies I implemented was tackling it one issue at a time. It’s not necessarily what I would advocate for, I was well within my rights to raise all of the issues at once, but this was the way I felt most comfortable doing it. One hill, not the whole mountain. Rather than dump my plethora of complaints on my boss at once, I planned every fortnight to set a new boundary, or deal with something new.

First, was my pay. Two weeks later, I told him I had to leave at 5pm every day, otherwise I would miss the last bus. By the end of the month, I was taking toilet breaks without needing his permission.

Yes, it was incredibly tense for the hours and days that followed. But, I got there. Yes, I was entitled to question the fact that I hadn’t been paid and the amount was incorrect. Yes I was entitled to leave when my shift ended, regardless of when my bus left. Yes, I had the right to take toilet breaks when I needed them. And I got there in a way I felt comfortable raising them.

If you’re not sure how to go about raising an issue in the workplace, you can head here for some tips.

  1. Know when it’s time.

There is only so much anyone can take. While I had figured out how I could go about asking for fair treatment and making my voice heard when something felt wrong, I still had a limit.

That was my limit of feeling like a stupid human, who had stupidly put herself into a stupid situation.

But I wasn’t the stupid one. It wasn’t my fault at all. It was his. I wasn’t the offender. He was.

While I’d figured out how I could go about getting my rights back there was still behaviour I couldn’t live with. And, even if I’d gotten that to stop, I knew I couldn’t keep going there every day. So I resigned and started looking for other jobs.

This stuff is hard and the financial risks for so many of us are real. The stats say that 30% of young people (16-24) are un- or underemployed. So what choice do we have if we need the cash and don’t want to rock the boat?

The answer is you do have choices, you have resources and services you can access to help you, even though you shouldn’t have to be making them in the first place.

This is one person’s experience and their course of action. You have rights and there are resources to help you exercise those rights. To find out if your rights are being violated or to find out what to do if they are being violated, contact the Fair Work Ombudsman or the Australian Human Rights Commission. And remember, you can always join a union to protect yourself from this kind of behaviour down the track.

If you feel threatened or are in immediate danger call 000.

Bullying is super serious and can have ongoing effects on your mental health. If you or someone you know is experiencing bullying in the workplace (or otherwise!) you can access Lifeline 24/7 for free crisis support and suicide prevention — 13 11 14. Another support service is Headspace — it’s a free service for young people. Visit Headspace here.


The opinions expressed herein are the opinions of the writer and do not reflect the views of The Foundation for Young Australians. This article is intended as general information only and should not be relied upon as legal advice.