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Illegal and Injurious

How Alberta Has Failed Teen Workers

Executive summary

Illegal and Injurious

Most Albertans will hold a job at some point during their teen years. Jobs provide teens with money, a sense of accomplishment and useful vocational skills. Yet teens employed in Alberta also face widespread illegality and injury on the job. Research suggests that:

  • up to 70% of adolescents (12–14) may be employed in illegal occupations
  • teens (12–17) routinely face wage theft and are employed for more hours than they are legally allowed to work
  • more than half of all employed teens experience work-related injuries each year.

This widespread injury and illegality in teen employment reflects that Alberta does not effectively enforce the employment laws that are supposed to protect teen workers, including the Employment Standards Code and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Employers face almost no chance of being caught violating these laws. And, if they are caught, they are unlikely to be penalized for noncompliance.

There are many factors that contribute to the government’s historical unwillingness to enforce the laws it has passed. Teen employment is often thought of as a character-building experience with wage theft and injury — endemic features of employment in Alberta — being framed as educational experiences. The close relationship between the former Conservative government and Alberta’s business community also created reluctance on the part of legislators to sanction meaningful enforcement of employment laws.

The election of a New Democratic government in Alberta may significantly change the political calculus around worker rights. For example, one of the first acts of the Notley government was to raise Alberta’s minimum wage over a series of years. As Alberta revisits the content and administration of its employment laws, the following changes could significantly improve the working lives of Alberta teens:

  1. Require employers to have permits for workers under the age of 18. Permitting creates an opportunity to educate employers about their obligations as well as provides data to drive policy decisions and enforcement activity.
  2. Increase the awareness of teens about both their workplace rights and how to use those via curricular change in Alberta schools.
  3. Increase the monitoring of teen employment by hiring additional workplace inspectors and tasking them with random and targeted inspections of workplaces employing teens.
  4. Increase the reputational and financial costs of employer noncompliance with teen employment laws by ticketing noncompliant employers, refusing them permits to hire teens in the future, and publicizing their names.
  5. Increase teen workers’ access to union representation by reforming Alberta labour laws such as dispensing with the need for a certification vote when a majority of workers are union members and providing for first-contract arbitration.
ISBN: 978-1-894949-50-7
Bob Barnetson

Dr. Bob Barnetson is a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University. His research focuses on the political economy of workplace regulation in Alberta with specific attention to occupational injury, child labour and farm worker rights. Barnetson is the author of several Parkland Institute reports and blog posts. His recent books include Canadas labour market training system (Athabasca U Press, 2018), Farm workers in Alberta (UAlberta Press, 2016), and Health and safety in Canadian workplaces (Athabasca U Press, 2016).

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