How can we protect students from wage theft?

A principal acting as a go between for an employer seeking a trainee and a student wanting work seems innocent enough. But what if that employer exploits the student with underpayment, no payslips or no payment at all? What is the duty of care?

This is just one of a wide variety of issues raised by the extensive Students@Work project undertaken by the South Coast Labour Council (SCLC).

The campaign started thanks to the heroic efforts of University of Wollongong student Ashleigh Mounser.

After months of exploitation and underpayment by cafes in Wollongong, Mounser used social media to survey other students and discovered that 60 local outlets, (nearly every business on the main street of Wollongong) were exploiting their student workers. Ashleigh collected enough information to create a database of employers and employees and information about the levels of underpayments.

Typical employer behaviours included cash in hand payments, unpaid ‘trials’, below minimum wage payments, not providing payslips, not providing penalty rates and sacking or giving less shifts to students for speaking out. In Wollongong the average worker, aged 21, was getting paid $10 an hour. The correct minimum rate is $22.86 per hour.

After meeting Ashleigh, SCLC Secretary Arthur Rorris approached Fairfax Media on her behalf and she and other students were able to tell their stories.

Mounser had approached the Fair Work Ombudsman but “got the impression nothing would be done”, Rorris said.

The Fairfax expose, called The Great Student Swindle, became one of the outlet’s most popular interactive media pages and highlighted a systemic problem facing students everywhere.

“It was so prevalent it was fair to say it seemed like employers were colluding,” Rorris said.

“This gave Sally McManus proof that exploitation was systematic. It was also “a wake up call” for the union movement at large, he said.

“We have had to look at our structures and how we organise the next generation of workers. Do union rules need fixing as well as industrial rules?”

School students go into jobs with no idea of their basic rights, yet we act surprised when they get exploited

The IEU is among unions that provide free coverage for students, but for unions with hospitality and retail workers making up the bulk of their membership, it’s difficult.

“They need to pay their wages, but how do you charge union fees to a student that earns $30 a week?

“United Voice has started a new branch in Victoria called Hospo Voice aimed at young workers, and Unions NSW and the ACTU are working more on this area.

“I think this project is the most important thing SCLC has done in 20 years.

“School students go into jobs with no idea of their basic rights, yet we act surprised when they get exploited”.

Rorris is trying to approach schools and students to raise awareness of workers’ rights.

“It is problematic as we did not want the media or conservative side of politics characterising this as a union recruitment campaign targeting schools.

“So we decide to approach P&C groups directly. Many parents have welcomed our approach, as they do not like their children being exploited at work.”

Rorris said he has had success with a number of Catholic schools in the Wollongong area, who have welcomed him in as a guest speaker.

“There is an issue of duty of care of the kids that principals need to be aware of when it comes to traineeships and vocational work experience. “

Rorris is keen to talk to principals or careers advisor groups and can travel outside the Wollongong area if required. Unions NSW would be involved with meetings outside Wollongong.

If you would like to find out more, contact the SLC at or see

The Great Student Swindle:

Sue Osborne