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Alberta failing to ensure safe, fair work for teens, report finds

Many Alberta teens are employed in prohibited occupations or unsafe workplaces while working more hours than legally allowed, a Parkland Institute study of youth labour in the province asserts.

The report’s author, Athabasca University labour relations professor Bob Barnetson, says regulations intended to balance school and work are weaker in Alberta than other Western provinces while enforcement has traditionally been lacking.

“Basically, employers have gotten used to the fact that the province has turned a blind eye to employment problems,” said Barnetson, whose findings are based on seven years of research. “There’s no chance you’re going to get caught and there’s no chance you’re going to get punished. So, of course, employers just ignore employment laws.”

Alberta’s jobs minister said the government is already reviewing the province’s labour code and recognizes the specific issues around youth employment.

“Our labour code, for example, is 25 years old. Lots has changed in the workplace since then. It really needs to be updated and so we’re reviewing all labour legislation and absolutely we know that youth have particular challenges,”said Lori Sigurdson.

“Certainly our government is committed to making sure all (youth) rights are respected in the workplace, that they work in fair and safe environments and certainly that they get paid as they should be.”

Barnetson’s report, Illegal and Injurious: How Alberta Has Failed Teen Workers, contends the province has historically had one of the weakest enforcement regimes in Canada. Only 8,500 inspections for health and safety violations of 154,000 Alberta businesses were completed in 2013-14, he found, meaning a business only faces inspection an average of once every 18 years.

The report recommends improving worker and employer education, more effective monitoring and increased enforcement and punishment for violations.

Barnetson said one of his jarring findings involved the prevalence of workplace injuries. “That was really disturbing to me, that half of 12 to 14-year-olds are reporting getting injured each year at least once on the job,” he said.

The number of young workers reporting sexually harassment on the job was also concerning.

“That didn’t show up so much in the statistics but certainly in the comments that they made,” he said. “It was reasonably commonplace particularly for younger women working in the service industry to be harassed by customers and even colleagues.”

Parkland Institute is a non-partisan public policy research institute in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta.

Siobhan Vipond, secretary treasurer and acting president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the organization was aware of the report’s release, adding it believes the issue has grown worse.

“They obviously put a lot of great research work into this and I think they’ve come up with the right conclusions, which is we have a serious problem in this province that needs to be addressed,” said Vipond.

“We saw with our previous government that they were responding to a lot of lobbying by employers so we saw the lowering of age and we also saw the increase of job categories.”

Vipond said the province’s complaint-based system presumes young workers know their rights and how to file a complaint against their employer.

“We think a great first step would be an education of young workers. They would be trained to know what the rules are,” said Vipond. “We also think that all employers who hire young workers need to be trained in terms of what the roles are.”

Barnetson said employers have little incentive to follow employment standards given the lack of effective monitoring or meaningful penalties. Only four prosecutions related to teen employment have taken place in the province since 2000, he added.

Related research
Illegal and Injurious: How Alberta Has Failed Teen Workers

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