Study finds child labour, violations in Alberta

EDMONTON (Canadian OH&S News)

A study suggesting potentially widespread labour malpractices involving children and adolescents in Alberta, including illegal employment, has elicited calls from the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) to beef up enforcement.

Of the 8,200 (6.3 per cent of) children aged nine to 11 who held jobs between 2008 and 2009, 78 per cent were employed in prohibited jobs such as newspaper delivery and janitorial services. For the 26,000 (19.4 per cent of) adolescents aged 12 to 14 who worked, 21 per cent were employed in prohibited occupations, such as janitorial services, sports teams and on golf courses.

"I was surprised by the number of children who were employed," says Edmonton-based study author Bob Barnetson, Ph.D, associate professor of labour relations with Athabasca University.

The "Effectiveness of Complaint-Driven Regulation of Child Labour in Alberta" is based on data from telephone surveys of 1,200 homes conducted by the University of Alberta's Population Research Laboratory, and 20 interviews with parents and children or adolescents who participate in the workforce.

"This study shows that underage workers need more than a few targeted inspections. Alberta's complaints-driven employment standards system does not work for families in this province," AFL president Gil McGowan charges in a statement.

The study suggests that the province's reliance on complaints to trigger enforcement of labour laws is ineffective, as the number of complaints filed often fall far below violation levels. Ignorance of worker rights and workplace practices, coupled with fear of potential employer retaliation, are also influencing factors.

McGowan adds that the province's decision to allow children as young as 12 to work in restaurants has exacerbated the problem.

Young workers in Alberta fall under two categories: adolescents aged 12-14, and young persons aged 15-17. "There are strong rules in place within Alberta's Employment Standards that forbid young people under 12 from being employed," says Jay Fisher, public affairs officer with Alberta Employment and Immigration (AEI) in Edmonton. "We would be concerned about any Albertan under 12 years of age being employed in a regular job."

Babysitting, doing chores not employment

Some children do take up tasks like babysitting or raking the neighbour's lawn, "but that's not considered a job," says Fisher.

The study notes that these jobs are not regarded as forms of employment as there is no intention to establish an ongoing employment relationship. "If I babysit as an adult, that's an employment or at least it could be employment" that would be regulated, says Dr Barnetson by way of example.

For those aged 12-14, legal forms of employment include delivery of newspapers or wares, clerical or messenger duties for offices and retail stores, and work in restaurants or foodservices industry, notes Dr Barnetson.

While there are limitations surrounding what young workers in restaurants can do, such as not serving liquor, "what I find in my interviews with adolescents who work in restaurants is, generally speaking, no one pays attention to those limitations that Alberta requires," says Dr Barnetson.

Violations include working too many hours, most commonly a four-hour shift on a school day; receiving less than minimum wage; and working under age, in prohibited occupations or performing prohibited tasks, the study reports.

In some instances, "parents were surprised to learn that their child routinely handled box cutters, worked on ladders, lifted heavy boxes and used fryers and other equipment. Among the injuries reported were burns, cuts and back injuries," the study notes.

Farms and ranches is another area that falls outside of regulatory scrutiny. "Young kids, when they grow up on a farm, are often working with their parents and are doing menial jobs," Fisher points out. "But these are traditional farm jobs that are not covered by employment standards."

Most provinces prohibit minors from working on a variety of jobs that are dangerous, difficult or likely to have a negative effect on a child's moral development, says the Guide to Child Labour Laws in Canada by the Commission for Labor Cooperation. Minors younger than 14 years of age in New Brunswick, for example, are prohibited from working in garages and dance halls.

McGowan is urging the Alberta labour ministry to repeal the decision to allow children as young as 12 to work in restaurants, and put in place a sustained program to inspect workplaces that are known to employ underage workers.

Dr Barnetson recommends increasing the visibility of prosecutions. "A bit of public shaming is highly underestimated as an enforcement strategy," he says.

Fisher says that AEI will be commencing focused random inspections aimed at young worker safety. Legal actions against inappropriate youth employment, such as the conviction of a director with Shelby Amusement Services Inc. in November of 2009 for allowing a young worker to sell food and beverages at its retail premise at a prohibited time, are also posted on its website, adds Fisher.

Canadian OH&S News, Mon May 2 2011

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