By Michael Smith
Often, the final punctuation in a life story is not a period, but a question mark. After 15-year-old Christopher Lawrence was entangled in a conveyor belt at a gravel-crushing site outside Drumheller, Alberta in July, safety inspectors fanned out across the province in early commencement of a planned inspection blitz on gravel-crushing sites. The death of the teenage worker has raised a larger question: should Lawrence have been permitted to work in that position at all?
Alberta is Canada’s fastest-growing province by population and economic output, largely due to dramatic investment in fossil-fuel development. It is also one of the fastest-growing employers of youths — the second-highest in Canada — and one of the most laissez-faire: any Albertan aged 12 and up is considered an “adolescent” and can legally work at any job with a permit from Employment Standards, except clerking in an office and delivering flyers, which do not require a permit. Thanks to a controversial expansion in 2005 of the types of jobs that 12- to 14-year-olds can do, that list now includes restaurants and retail stores.
“Since 2005, the provincial government here in Alberta has been conducting what I would call a ruthless experiment with child labour,” charges Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) in Edmonton. “Alberta is virtually alone among provinces in allowing kids as young as 12 to hold what we would describe as adult jobs.”
All provinces and territories except Alberta, British Columbia, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories impose restrictions on minors working in foodservices and heavy industries. In British Columbia, children under 12 cannot be employed without a child-employment permit issued by the Director of Employment Standards under the provincial labour ministry. The same applies to youths under 16 and 14 in Manitoba and New Brunswick respectively. Saskatchewan sets a general minimum working age of 16; 14- and 15-year-olds can work if they have permission from a parent or guardian and have completed the Young Worker Readiness Certificate Course. Canada is one of dozens of countries that have not ratified the International Labour Organization Convention 138 on minimum age.
Much concern has focused on Alberta’s agricultural sector, in which employment of children is unregulated. According to the Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research, 41 people under 15 died of agriculture-related injury between 1990 and 2009. And there are few rules relating to employing children on family farms.
“If you think your nine-year-old can drive a combine, go for it. And yet it is one of the three or four most hazardous industries in Canada,” says Bob Barnetson, Ph.D., associate professor of labour relations at Athabasca University in northern Alberta.
It is a well-known fact that young people are at greater risk in any industry. Annual data collected by Alberta’s Ministry of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour indicate that young people’s share of workplace injuries is routinely disproportionate to their share of the workforce. The Workers’ Compensation Board of Alberta’s 2014 employer handbook estimates that youths between 15 and 24 are one-third more likely to be injured at work than their older counterparts.
A study entitled Incidence of Work and Workplace Injury Among Alberta Teens, published last year by Athabasca University, found that 49.7 per cent of workers aged 12 to 14 and 59 per cent of those 15 to 17 reported at least one injury on the job during the previous year. Government inspectors found 73 per cent of workplaces violated the Employment Standards Code. Researchers say prosecutions happen less frequently than once every five years.
“The strongest safety right is the right to refuse unsafe work. But very few employees are going to exercise that right, particularly if you are a minor,” Dr. Barnetson says. “You are not only less powerful than the employer, you are also less powerful than the adult [who is] telling you what to do.”
Candace Martens, community outreach worker with the Calgary Workers’ Resource Centre, notes that many young workers get injured due to lack of job experience and knowledge of dangers. Martens, who conducts workshops on workplace rights in high schools, says young workers often try to take on more than they can handle, but not because they want to show off. “They are showing they can fit in.”
Gina Puntil, programmer with Alberta Workers’ Health Centre in Edmonton who oversees the Work Plays program, visits high schools in Alberta every year with professionally-produced theatre productions on the realities of work. Each presented scenario is followed by a 20-minute talk-back. Students and teachers also receive resources and contacts of people to whom they can direct questions.
“We are all pretty tentative asking about safety situations. To be a teenager, with so many other things going on in their lives, it might not seem important — and they also feel like they are invincible,” suggests Puntil, who urges young workers to trust their guts. “If you feel like something is wrong, you are probably right.”
In Work Plays’ anonymous surveys of students, 68.6 per cent responded that they knew they had the right to be informed of workplace hazards, and 60.9 per cent said they were aware that they could refuse unsafe work — despite 65.7 per cent receiving no safety training.
Yet the high injury rate associated with young workers suggests that their lack of power — relative to not just their employers but also their older co-workers — could be making it hard for them to avoid taking on dangerous jobs and resist exploitation. In 2005, Alberta passed on to parents the responsibility of monitoring safety in foodservice jobs for young people: under the revised rule, employers in the restaurant and foodservices industry no longer need to get a government permit to hire employees aged 12 to 14 if they have the consent of a parent or guardian.
But in a province that is rapidly attracting newcomers and where most employees are paid an hourly minimum wage of $10.20, parents are not always trying hard to dissuade their teenaged kids from working.
“If [young workers] are first-generation or they have come from another country with their parents and are working to support their family, they won’t complain. They need that money, and they are not going to refuse unsafe work because they are scared of being fired,” Martens suggests. “Most people want to make their first boss happy.”
Concerns over the safety of young workers deepened when the Ministry of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour floated the idea of opening foodservice work up to children 12 and under during public consultations on the Employment Standards Code in March. To solicit public feedback, the ministry developed a discussion guide with a list of questions, one of which relates to young workers.
The ministry’s Edmonton-based communications officer Lauren Welsh clarifies that there is no proposal to expand the scope of work to 12-year-olds. “At no time did the government suggest that plans were in the works to implement any particular change. The questions posed were simply there to stimulate discussion and feedback.”
That said, there seems to be no appetite for tightening rules either. “The annual cost of youth unemployment or underemployment to the government of Alberta is $177 million in lost revenue and program costs and a reduction in Alberta’s GDP of $667 million,” says Welsh, citing cost estimates based on statistics for Albertans under 24. “Without meaningful employment, youth suffer from reduced workplace skills, low job satisfaction and productivity. Youth bring with them new ideas, their knowledge and interest in technology.”
Ron Egan, recruitment manager with Clark Builders in Edmonton, works with 16-year-olds who aspire to become carpenters, through Alberta’s Registered Apprenticeship Program. “It is an opportunity to get into a trade, and I am a big believer in that,” he says. “If we don’t work with them today, where are they going to go tomorrow? Not everyone is cut out for university, and you can make great money as a carpenter.” Egan has worked with 15 teens in the last seven years. “Now they are journeyman carpenters, working their way through life — buying a house, a car, making their start as young adults.”
He adds that the benefits he sees are not just for young workers. Alberta’s labour supply has not been keeping pace with its rapid growth, and encouraging people into the trades earlier is increasingly important for his industry and the province. “It is a huge issue,” Egan notes. “From Tim Hortons to construction, there is a shortage.”
The Alberta government forecasts that the province will need an additional 407,000 workers by 2023. “While the number of workers entering the workforce or moving to Alberta will increase over the same timeframe, we are still expected to be short 96,000 workers,” Welsh says.
But McGowan refutes the suggestion that what has been termed as Alberta’s laissez-faire approach towards employment regulation stems from a labour shortage. “There is no evidence of that. All the numbers suggest we have a healthy, but balanced, labour market.”
He claims that the low-wage service sector including fast-food restaurants is setting its sights on vulnerable workers — youths from 12 to 14 and temporary foreign workers alike. McGowan reports that when the AFL published a list of companies in Alberta hiring temporary foreign workers, acquired through an Access to Information request, retail and fast-food companies stuck out.
“All mainstream work for 12- to 14-year-olds should be prohibited,” McGowan stresses. He adds that while jobs like babysitting may be reasonable, “anything beyond that introduces stress and hazards, we think is inappropriate.”
Safety regulation may have a hard time keeping up as the drive for more labour presses on. Part of this has its roots back in 1992, when the Conservative government of Ralph Klein cut the labour ministry’s budget in half and reduced the number of workplace safety inspectors in the province to 86 right up until 2010.
“For years now, Alberta has had the lowest rates of inspection and the lowest rates of prosecution for employers who have put employees at risk,” McGowan charges. “On the one hand, we have more people working in dangerous occupations, but on the other, we have fewer workplace inspectors.”
In March 2011, Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk announced a three-year plan to hire 30 new safety officers that would bring the number of inspectors in the province to 132 by 2014 — a 55-per-cent increase from 86 officers in early 2010.
In January, Alberta’s labour ministry expanded the powers of inspectors to include issuing tickets, and last fall saw the introduction of a new administrative-penalty system that can issue fines of up to $10,000 per violation per day. Welsh reports that as of mid-September, three such penalties had been served to employers and 31 tickets had been issued to workers.
But laws need to be enforced to be effective, Dr. Barnetson stresses. “There is no chance you are going to get caught breaking labour laws, and if you do, you won’t be prosecuted.”
The foundation for safe-work practices may have to be laid before young people even hit the job market. Some situations described by teens in Work Plays’ follow-up surveys are unsettling, with young workers recounting workplace injuries that include having an arm sucked into a machine, a foot being nail-gunned, infection from pulling out poison ivy without gloves and getting burned by hot oil from fries at work.
Puntil says students often share private stories of sexual harassment at work — something that weighs heavily on her.
Martens says young workers are often asked to do tasks that are more dangerous, because they do not understand the dangers involved in the task. “A more experienced worker would say no, but a young worker, if you are asked to do something, especially if it is outside of what you normally do and you might get a raise or a promotion, then you might be eager to do it.”
She adds that students are regularly “amazed” to find out that they have rights at work or that young people should be trained before being put at risk on the job. “Often, employers won’t pay them for training. And when I ask, ‘Were you watching someone else or were you just doing the job?’ they often say, ‘I was doing the job, but they considered it training.’”
There is one thing that both advocates and critics of expanded child labour might agree on: the need to make young people more aware of the realities of work. “They need to be aware of equipment running around them, of not putting themselves in unsafe situations,” Egan says. “I am not sure counsellors in school are huge sources of information. Do schools even have the knowledge to pass on to these students? It would be nice if we as industries were invited in to talk about the trades, how we work.”
But it is not enough to tell workers to keep themselves safe. “That is sort of like blaming the victim,” McGowan suggests. “I have been AFL president for a decade now, and I have seen multiple campaigns aimed at workers, not employers — even an insulting campaign aimed at young workers, ‘Don’t Be Stupid.’”
He thinks that the only way to turn around the safety situation is if employers and governments do more in supervision and training and provide access to proper safety equipment, especially for young workers.
Welsh stresses that employers need to lead by example and make sure that all employees are properly trained. That includes spending as much time as necessary training young workers, teaching workers to report illnesses and injuries immediately, educating employees to report potential hazards and responding promptly to all health and safety concerns.
If the aim is for young workers to value safety, recognizing the work done by young workers is a step in the right direction, Dr. Barnetson suggests. “What are we actually teaching young people in service jobs?” he asks. “We are teaching them to be docile, and we are teaching they are only worth nine or 10 [dollars] an hour.”
Michael Smith is a writer in Toronto.
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