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Know your labour rights

October 21, 2016

I’ve heard from a number of close friends this year, telling me tales of terrible working conditions and downright job loss. Sure, things aren’t looking too shiny with the economic downturn but students have faced similar problems regardless of boom and bust. But why are students and younger employees faced with what appears to be more frequent workplace issues?

The simple answer is desperation. Everyone knows the old complaint, “can’t get a job without experience, can’t get experience without a job.” Despite very real alternatives for gaining experience, like volunteering, some employers only consider paid work experience valid. On top of that, many students rely on part-time or summer jobs to cover living expenses or to pay off student loans post-graduation.

This all adds up to the fact that students need jobs. Whether to pay bills or gain experience, we really don’t have an option, and that leaves the door open to unscrupulous employers.

Let’s ignore the infamous unpaid internship this time – many arguments can be made over the worth, effectiveness and legality of unpaid internships across industries and jurisdictions. Even without unpaid positions, students aren’t necessarily getting the best treatment.

By no means am I qualified to outline labour regulations or standards – and I don’t suggest that students and other employees rely solely on their own interpretation of the regulations after reading them once. If you have concerns, contact someone. In Alberta, you can address any questions to the Alberta Employment Standards office for information and guidance. However, there are some generic items that you can watch out for.

The main offence you’ll find in shady workplace environments is abuse of overtime hours. Unless you work in a very specific role (and most students don’t!), you are entitled to overtime pay, and pay for the hours you do work. Yet there is a frequent expectation for employees to work late, skip breaks and show up for short shifts without the required pay. Many times, employers get away with it because younger employees either aren’t aware of what they are entitled to or they aren’t willing to risk their jobs to fight for it.

As long as you’re working a real job (and not a cash under the table deal), you should be protected and entitled to minimum wage. For those working cash jobs, you have very little protection under legislation. However, outside of the minimum wage, students and young workers are often legally exploited in a different way – chronic undervaluation.

See those jobs advertised in online job boards? If you’re lucky, they have a salary range posted, so you at least have an idea of what they’ll pay – unfortunately for you, as a student or new grad, dimes to dollars you’ll be getting that number on the low-end of the range (or even less!). Not all companies post a position’s salary range, though, and for those positions, you can expect a significant gap between what you are offered and what your experienced competitor is offered.

Sure, this could mean you have a cost advantage for being hired. Lots of people also consider it to be “paying your dues” during school or after graduation. Yet, along with the phenomenon of three to five years experience required for entry-level positions, pay gaps can increase significantly when a student or new graduate is considered.

The only real way to combat this is to be aware of your rights and confident in your worth. No, we’re not worth $70,000 a year right out of school but we certainly shouldn’t be expected to take what I call the “pity wage” as students. It will take some growing pains – like I said, students need jobs – but if it means the difference between long hours for little pay and getting paid for your actual work, I think the choice is obvious.

– Nicolas Brown, Issues Editor