EDMONTON - As of June 3, 2005, Alberta employers can now legally hire 12, 13 and 14-year olds to work in restaurants, the Alberta Federation of Labour revealed today. In a quiet policy change, implemented without public debate or discussion, the Alberta government decided to allow for a blanket exemption to the Employment Standards Code for the entire restaurant industry. Previously, a person had to be 15-years old to work in a restaurant.
"With the stroke of a pen, the government has created a new type of child labour in this province. 12-year olds can now serve you your Big Mac, or prepare your salad," says Gil McGowan. "What's next? Letting 10-year olds work on construction sites?"
"It is particularly appalling that a change of this magnitude was made without public consultation, without debate and without notice," McGowan adds.
"Allowing 12-year olds to work in restaurants is not in the child's interest, it is not in the customers' interest, and it is not in society's interest. Kids that young should be doing two things - going to school and playing," observes McGowan. "There is plenty of time in life for working, why are we in such a rush to push children into the workforce?"
McGowan said the real motivation for the policy change is clear - propping up the interests of restaurant operators.
"Restaurant employers are having a hard time finding adults willing to work for the low wages and lousy conditions they offer, and rather than raise their wages, they get the government to create a whole new pool of vulnerable workers."
The old policy prohibited children under 15 from working, except in select jobs such as newspaper carrier or odd jobs in an office or retail store. If an employer wanted to hire an adolescent (12-14), they needed to get a special exemption for that individual from the Director of Employment Standards.
The new policy now allows restaurants to hire adolescents without permission, if they meet certain safety and consent requirements. This is the first time employment standards have provided an industry-wide exemption to the age limit. (A copy of the new policy is available at www.gov.ab.ca/hre/employmentstandards.)
"The supposed safeguards are nothing of the kind," says McGowan. "They are paper tigers that will do nothing to protect these children against abuse, exploitation or danger." McGowan points out the 'requirements' are that the employer must fill out a checklist, and get the consent of the child and their parent.
"A 12-year old is not in a position to defend themselves against employer abuse. They have no way of recognizing a safety hazard, or understanding their rights," McGowan argues. "We have created a situation where young children are being put in very vulnerable positions. It's a recipe for exploitation."
"Is this the Alberta Advantage?" McGowan asks. "Child labour in our restaurants? I don't think this is what Albertans want."
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For more information contact:
Gil McGowan, AFL President at 780.915.4599 (cell) or 780.483-3021 (wk)
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
Activists concerned about sweatshop labour will stage rallies outside two popular sporting goods shops in Edmonton and Calgary over the weekend.
Both rallies will be held on Saturday, August 26 starting at 11 a.m. The Edmonton rally will be held outside Sportchek at Mayfair Common (Mayfield Rd. and Stony Plain Road). The Calgary rally will be held outside Forzani's, located at 2415-4th Street S.W.
At both rallies, leaflets will be distributed to shoppers explaining the sweatshop conditions under which many sporting good are manufactured. Customers will also be urged to shop ethically.