OHS Canada Magazine

Growing Pains

April 8, 2018
By Michael Smith (with files from Jean Lian)

Alberta’s new employment standards for workers under the age of 18 will come into effect on May 1, 2018. Under the province’s existing labour laws, children under 12 years of age who have a permit from Alberta Labour’s director of Employment Standards are allowed to work in special and limited circumstances.

 According to a fact sheet from Alberta Labour, employees 12 to 14 years old are considered adolescents and require written consent from a parent or guardian before they can start work. They also need a permit from Employment Standards to take up jobs other than clerking in an office or retail store, delivering flyers or undertaking certain approved duties in the restaurant industry.

Young persons aged between five and 17 do not need parental or guardian consent except when working between midnight and 6 am. They are also subject to special restrictions when employed by restaurants, bars, all retail stores, gas stations, hotels and motels.

 “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.”

t 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.

An Athabasca University study, Incidence of Work and Workplace Injury Among Alberta Teens, published in 2013 found that half 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,” says Dr. Bob Barnetson, professor of labour relations at Athabasca University in Alberta. “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, public legal educator with Calgary Workers’ Resource Centre, notes that many young workers get injured due to lack of job experience and knowledge of dangers. As well, young workers often take on more than they can handle, not because they want to show off. “They are showing they can fit in.”

Gina Puntil, artistic director/program coordinator with Alberta Workers’ Health Centre in Edmonton, urges young workers to trust their guts. “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.”

The Alberta government forecasts that the province will need an additional 407,000 workers by 2023. 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. “All mainstream work for 12- to 14-year-olds should be prohibited,” McGowan stresses, adding that while jobs like babysitting may be reasonable, “anything beyond that introduces stress and hazards, we think is inappropriate.”

Safety Schooling

The foundation for safe-work practices may have to be laid before young people even hit the job market. 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,” says Ron Egan, recruitment manager with Clark Builders in Edmonton. “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. 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.

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.