Being a blue-collar apprentice in Australia can be rewarding, fulfilling and lead to a profitable career – but for a few, it’s an introduction to bullying, unsafe pranks, harassment and childish initiation rituals. Bullying within the trades now receives a higher profile than in previous decades and today’s workers tend to have a better understanding of their rights, but that doesn’t mean the old-school mindset of ‘toughening up’ a new worker has disappeared completely.

Some pranks can be good-humoured and non-threatening: sending the newbie to the supply desk for ‘a set of fallopian tubes’ or ‘a left-handed hammer’ may be infantile but don’t constitute bullying (unless such requests form part of a larger campaign of ongoing harassment).
But when the line is crossed into racism, sexism, repeated intimidation, chronic belittlement, sexual harassment or other forms of sustained victimisation, a whole set of problems can arise – including expensive lawsuits. ‘Harmless fun’ isn’t harmless when it drags down workplace culture and affects employee well-being and emotional health.

Bullying of anyone in the workplace (apprentices or not) has a huge and proven negative impact. Productivity drops. There’s higher staff turnover which leads to extra training and recruitment costs. Work is disrupted while employee complaints are investigated. Morale/motivation decreases and absenteeism/presenteeism rises. There are extra costs associated with workers’ compensation claims, support, mediation and counselling. Business reputation suffers.

Current research shows that bullying costs Australia up to $36 billion each year, with the average case draining employer’s pockets to the tune of $17,000-24,000. Fines under the Workplace Health and safety Act can be as much as $3 million for a Category 1 offence. On top of all that, workplace stress costs this country more than $14 billion a year.

For everyone’s sake, we need to treat our hard-working Aussie apprentices with the respect they deserve.

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