On June 3, 2005, Alberta earned the distinction of being only the second province in Canada to allow 12 year-olds to work in restaurants without a special permit. It did this without consultation, without debate and without informing Albertans about its potential impacts.
Alberta has also earned itself the dubious distinction of being in contravention of the International Labour Organization's Convention #138. This convention is supposed to help prevent child labour in under-developed nations. It says that for general occupations, the minimum age of employment should be 15 years of age, and 13 years of age for "light work". Regardless of whether one considers serving tables "light work", the new rules contravene the ILO Convention. (Unfortunately, Canada refuses to ratify this convention, meaning there is no way to enforce its provisions.)
The question Albertans need to ask is "how young is too young?" Do we want our children working in kitchens and serving tables at the ages of 12, 13 or 14? What does a law permitting 12 year-olds to work in restaurants say about our priorities as a province?
These are valid questions - questions the government has few good answers for. The government claims the change was a technicality, not really changing things for adolescents in Alberta. In one respect they are right, but they are missing a much bigger picture.
Before June 3, a restaurant owner could apply to the government for a permit to employ adolescents. This system, while not ideal and needing to be revoked, at least provided two layers of protection for the child. First, the government had an opportunity to review the employer's record. Do they abide by employment standards rules? What is their safety record?
Second, they had the opportunity to send an inspector to the workplace to check up on the employer, to make sure they were meeting the requirements of the permit. These checks could at least prevent the worst excesses of some bad employers.
The government admits they never did this, and had become a rubber stamp for permit applications. This is not a reason to scrap the permits. It is a desperate call to enhance enforcement of Employment Standards. The government responds to its indefensible inaction by loosening rules, not tightening enforcement.
Under the new system, even those two protections disappear. Now any restaurant owner can hire adolescents without asking government approval. This means the government will no longer have any clue where the children needing protection are. You can't help someone you can't find.
More importantly, the government is sending a message to employers. The permit system created a series of hoops to be jumped that made hiring 12 year-olds the exception, rather than the norm. Creating an industry-wide exemption says that hiring adolescents is business as usual.
The government acknowledges that the restaurant industry is one of its most problematic. It receives more complaints about employment standards violations than any other industry. Why are we giving a carte blanche to employers who can't demonstrate they know how to treat adults fairly, let only kids?
This is quite simply not acceptable. In a province as rich as ours, we do not need to send our kids out to work at such a young age.
The big picture the government is missing is that as a democratic society, we get to decide what our bottom lines are. And I would suggest most Albertans would agree 12 years-old is too young to work in a restaurant. That is our bottom line.
What can we do about it now, you might ask? Good question.
This change was made without consulting Albertans, but it was also made without the knowledge of our provincial politicians. Most MLAs had no idea this exemption was made. I believe it is time for them, as our elected representatives, to weigh in. They have a right to demand the decision be reversed. And you have a right to phone your MLA to demand that they do this.
Albertans concerned about 12 year-olds working in restaurants need to phone their local MLA, ask them if they knew about this, and demand they push to reverse the decision. Tell them 12 years-old is too young to work in restaurants.
If we band together, we might be able to protect our kids.
Byline: Gil McGowan