For many young people, work experience is their first time in a workplace and a chance to explore different fields before they choose to study or undertake an apprenticeship. It should be a fun and rewarding way to explore and find out what it is you want to do later in life. (And it usually is!)
However, because of the power imbalance and the lack of experience, it’s crucial that young people are aware of their rights in the workplace. This is so they’re safe and protected during work experience but also, so they’re aware of their rights in future jobs they do. All workers are in a better position when we know and can uphold our basic workplace rights, no matter our age!
What is work experience?
Work experience is when secondary school students, mostly in year 9 and 10, undertake a short-term placement in a real workplace. The aim is to give students insights into different industries and the jobs. It consists of one or two weeks to observe and learn and must NOT involve activities which require extensive training or expertise. Students are just there to learn by watching and assisting with simple tasks. They only receive a little cash, a minimum of $5 a day so they are not an employee. This is designed to go some distance to covering expenses, like topping up your Myki.
The student doing work experience should be getting the main benefit from the arrangement, not the business. If the business is getting the main benefit, it’s likely the student is undertaking work that is beyond the scope of work experience.
Rae was in year 10, looking forward to undertaking work experience. She had a great place lined up at a law firm and was excited to start as she wanted to see if she should study law. In the first week of her two-week work experience, she was chucked into an office doing admin work and learning very little about how the law firm operated. As this was her first experience in a workplace, she wasn’t sure if she should say something. They were a very small law firm, and Rae admits they probably didn’t know what to do with her.
“I was just in a room doing their accounts as a 15-year-old. I got the vibe that they were going to use the work I did, and it made me feel a bit weird. I didn’t have any financial experience, it wasn’t even a subject I’d studied at school!”
In her second week, however she was able to have a better time, as she was able to shadow the barrister and sit in on meetings and the day-to-day work of other lawyers. She only was asked to do very small jobs and with supervision. This is what work experience is supposed to be.
“This was much better for me to learn; I was able to experience what a law firm was like but I wasn’t put in a position of doing real work. I was able to ask questions and learn about what barristers do and even see inside court. It was relevant to my interest, I was doing work experience because I wanted to be a lawyer, not do accounts!”
Rae thinks that for work experience to be good for students, the teachers must be very clear with the workplace about what tasks they are allowed to ask students to do and to do as many visits to the workplace as possible. Reporting back to the teacher should be done as soon as possible and it’s important that the supervisors are given very clear instructions on what tasks are appropriate for students.
So what ARE your workplace rights?
Students undertaking work experience, like any other employee, have the right to a safe and healthy work environment and employers have a legal obligation to uphold this, and the school has a legal obligation to make sure students are safe and protected. Bullying and discrimination are not tolerated under Victorian law, and Work Experience Coordinators and teachers must be taking an active role in making sure that children doing work experience are supervised and that it is in a non-discriminatory environment, free from harassment. If students get injured on the job, they’re entitled to WorkCover, insurance that pays the costs of medical treatment and compensation.
What to be aware of: Power dynamic
Students undertaking work experience can be more vulnerable due to their age, lack of experience or confidence and the uneven power dynamic. School staff, employers and workplace supervisors need to be aware that work experience students are still developing physically, cognitively and emotionally and that they are there primarily to learn, not to do work. They are also inexperienced and can be unaware of workplace risks and might feel reluctant to speak up or ask questions out of lack of confidence so care should be taken to make sure students are empowered with the knowledge of what is appropriate for a working environment.
Tips for students!
- Speak up if you need. Talk to your supervisor regularly and tell an adult ASAP if you feel like something is not right!
- Make sure you’re able to learn about the things you’re interested in. These weeks should be to benefit you and allow you to learn things about the workplace you might want to head into.