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Proposed child labour laws are naïve and dangerous

In June 2017, the Alberta government updated the provincial Employment Standards Code for the first time since 1988, with Bill 17, the Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act, introducing a number of significant improvements for workers. The government has since been consulting employers, organized labour, and the public about the specific rules that will govern the employment of minors in Alberta.

Governments regulate child labour because young workers face a high risk of negative consequences from employment. An update to the rules around young workers was needed because the old laws were dated, largely unenforced, and generally ignored by employers. The result was that young Albertans in the workplace faced a significant risk of wage theft, harassment, and injury.

A 2013 study, for example, found that about half of young Alberta workers experienced at least one work-related injury in the previous year and that their employers frequently did not disclose hazards or provide safety training.

A 2010 study found that Alberta workers under the age of 14 routinely experienced wage theft, routinely worked in prohibited occupations or performed prohibited tasks, and their employers often failed to obtain parental consent and provide safety checklists.

Alberta's lax enforcement of its employment laws contributes to this behaviour. Employers know there is essentially no chance they will get caught violating the rules and, if they do, there will be no penalty.

While workers can trigger enforcement through complaints, Alberta workers report high levels of fear associated with filing complaints. Indeed, young workers and their parents rarely considered filing a complaint to the government in the event of a violation, and most injuries went unreported. This reflects, in part, that young workers and their parents and largely ignorant of the law and that parents are generally unaware of the actual working working conditions their children face.

So will Alberta's proposed new child labour laws make things better? Overall, probably not.

The new rules raise the minimum age of employment from 12 to 13. In theory, this should eliminate employment risks for 12-year-olds, but Alberta does not consider babysitting—the most common form of employment for young people—to be employment. This blanket policy exemption is wrongheaded (in some cases, babysitting will clearly meet the common law definition of employment) and undercuts the positive effect of raising the minimum age of employment.

The new rules place significantly more constraints on the employment of 15-year-olds but also significantly expand the jobs that 13- to 14-year-olds may perform. The proposed "light work rules" will allow young teens to perform light janitorial work, work at a gas station, perform food preparation and groundskeeping duties, work on an assembly line, and paint.

To be fair, the government has gone to significant lengths to place limits on tasks that these young workers can do in these jobs. For example:

  • Food preparation is limited to assembling food orders (e.g., washing, gathering, presenting, portioning, and wrapping foods) using manual tools and appliances typically found in a home, such as toasters, blenders, microwaves, and coffee machines/grinders.
  • Light janitorial work excludes the use of commercial/industrial gas/propane motorized heavy equipment (e.g., floor burnisher, wax and polish machines) and harmful substances defined as hazardous.
  • Weeding, planting and watering, and groundskeeping is restricted to tasks without the use of gas-powered equipment (i.e., all lawn-mowing equipment, snow blowers, leaf blowers, weed wackers).
  • Light assembly excludes the use of cutting torches, welding, or working with hazardous substances.
  • Painting is only allowed with environmentally-friendly substances (no commercial spray painting).

The (laudable) intent of these limits is protect teen workers from the most dangerous aspects of these occupations. Unfortunately, the evidence we have is that employers (in aggregate) typically ignore such rules once workers are in the workplace. For example, the 2013 study found that 57% of employers made no effort to disclose workplace hazards to 12- to 14-year-olds and 65% provided no health and safety training (both are explicit requirements in Alberta law). The numbers were better (but still not great) for 15- to 17-year-olds. The 2010 study found that employers in the restaurant industry rarely complied with specific requirements around parental consent and safety checklists (again, explicit requirements) and routinely made illegal deductions.

This is part of a broader pattern of employers ignoring Alberta's employment laws. For example, only half of Alberta employers have bothered to identify and control hazards in their workplaces.

The stories of young workers in the 2013 study paint an ugly picture of what this means for workers, some of whom will be injured:

  • "Cleaning fumes made me sick. I told my mom because she was my boss and then I went to the doctor. It wasn't that big of an issue, I was only sick for that day." (Grade 10, female)
  • "I was stuck fencing with a 12-year-old using 5 tonnes of equipment with no way to contact for help. I was the oldest one there." (15-year-old male)
  • "A manager tried to make me clean blood and I refused saying I could contract AIDS potentially." (15-year-old female)
  • "I didn't have proper gear but was given a substitute gear." (15-year-old male)
  • "I had my arm sucked into a machine and ripped open from my wrist to my elbow." (16-year-old male)
  • "I was throwing the garbage out into the dumpster and liquid got in my eye but luckily a co-worker was around to help me." (16-year-old male)
  • "Nail gun to the foot." (13-year-old male)
  • "I work at my grampa's farm and workplace. I was too young to use big equipment." (12-year-old male)
  • "I quit because my supervisors were drinking on the job and leaving me to work the kitchen which I wasn't legally allowed to be in." (Grade 10 female)
  • "I was told to do work after passing out. My supervisor said too bad I had a job to do and I said no, I got fired." (16-year-old female)
  • "We had no gloves for pulling out poison ivy." (13-year-old male)
  • "I fell off a ladder, twisted my ankle pretty bad. But my boss didn't do anything." (14-year-old female)
  • "Babysitting I got bit and needed 6 stitches." (13-year-old female)
  • "I got knocked out by a T-bar lift." (14-year-old male)
  • "My uncle told me to ride a horse he didn't know much about, and I ended up getting badly thrown from the horse, and at the time I didn't know that the horse was dangerous." (15-year-old female)
  • "I got burned by hot oil from the fries at work. My manager put burn cream on it although they didn't call my parents. They got fined $5000 because I was under age." (14-year-old)
  • "Combine machine lit on fire." (13-year-old male)
  • "I got attacked by a dog." (12-year-old)
  • "I mixed the wrong chemicals so we opened the window to let it air out. It is a farm so it is hard not to get hurt." (Male)
  • "I was asked to go out on an icy roof and I did because I didn't know if I had to." (Grade 11 male)
  • "I stepped on a nail. Now it is recommended to wear boots and there was a huge clean-up." (Grade 11 male)

These examples clearly illustrate that employers expose workers to physical, chemical, and biological hazards that they are not supposed to, such as deep fryers, nail guns, chemicals, and heavy equipment. They also illustrate that employers often fail to provide even rudimentary safety training and equipment.

Of particular concern is the level of workplace sexual harassment faced by teen workers, particularly in the retail and food service industries:

  • "I got sexual harassed (by another store associate) recently and my manager didn't do anything about it." (Grade 11 female)
  • "I've never been harassed by the people I work with but I have been sexually harassed by a lot of customers." (Grade 11 female)
  • "A guy was trying to tell me to go drink with him." (Grade 11 female)
  • "My manager was hitting on me." (Female)
  • "When I do my paper route there is a man who is always following and watching me. I went to the (employer) and asked for a different route." (12-year-old male)
  • "Sexual harassment when I was 13 (by employer). The harassment I didn't realize until a few months ago." (18-year-old female)
  • "The creepiness of guys dropping things so I picked them up and they look at my ass." (Grade 10 female)
  • "I told my boss I don't like it when she makes comments about my body." (Grade 11 female)
  • "I had a very sketchy boss. He was way too close and made me extremely uncomfortable. I quit." (16-year-old female)
  • "I was at work and one of the older men followed me to the washroom and tickled me then reached up under my shirt and grabbed my boob. I did nothing because I was only nine, so who would have listened to me?" (16-year-old female).
  • "Verbal harassment towards female workers; manager would call them bitches, etc." (Grade 11 male)
  • "I was working and a customer was saying weird things to me and he was an adult then he kept walking around me." (17-year-old female)

These examples illustrate that not only do employers not act to protect young workers from sexual harassment, they are often the perpetrators.

And here are some stories about how employers just straight up ignore employment standards and steal young workers' wages.

  • "They didn't pay me minimum wage and they would tell me to go home early when we weren't busy and not pay me my whole shift and they would call me at the last minute." (Grade 10 female)
  • "I did not have any break and it wasn't good with my school. I didn't have much time to study because I had to stay with them late until they close the store. I could not get off work earlier." (17-year-old female)
  • "I was getting $9.05 an hour for hostessing (minimum wage is $9.40). It's supposed to be $9.05 an hour for people serving alcohol. And I wasn't serving alcohol. I didn't do anything about it." (15-year-old female)
  • "Giving us short notice on our shifts; not giving us overtime pay. I know that my boss takes advantage of us, but I don't think I'd want to stand up to him 'cause then I'd get fired." (Grade 11 female)
  • "I was underage, they gave me odd hours ... and they wouldn't pay me by the number of hours I worked." (Grade 10 female)
  • "On school nights I worked six-hour shifts even though I was only 14 at the time." (Grade 11 female)

Taken together, this evidence tells us that the government trusting employers to follow child labour laws is naïve. Employer frequently don't follow the rules, and many employers steal from and endanger young workers. It also tells us that expanding the range of jobs that 13- to 14-year-olds can legally perform means the government is simply expanding the opportunity for employers to rip-off, injure, and sexually harass young workers.

Implementing the government's proposed light work rules would be a catastrophic policy blunder that will endanger children. At this point, the old Progressive Conservative child labour laws (albeit, if they were effectively enforced) would be far better than these new laws. The question these proposed changes raise is why is a NDP government prioritizing the interest of employers in accessing cheap, exploitable labour over its obligation to protect some of the most vulnerable workers in Alberta?

Photo credit: Quan Lee

Bob Barnetson

Dr. Bob Barnetson is a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University. His research focuses on the political economy of workplace injury, farm workers, and child labour in Alberta. He’s the author of The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada (Athabasca University Press, 2010), co-editor of Farm Workers in Western Canada: Injustices and Activism (University of Alberta Press, 2016) and co-author of Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces (Athabasca University Press, 2016).

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