Widespread violations of standards for underage workers in Alberta

There are widespread violations of employment standards for working children and adolescents in Alberta, according to a study by the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) and Athabasca University.

"Tens of thousands of adolescent Albertans, aged 12 to 14, are employed and 21 per cent of them work in illegal jobs," said Gil McGowan, president of AFL, which represents 140,000 workers. "The story for child workers, aged 9 to 11, is even worse, with 78 per cent doing work prohibited by the government."

Underage workers need more than a few targeted inspections, said McGowan.

“Alberta's complaints-driven employment standards system does not work for families in this province," she said, adding Alberta's Dickensian decision to allow children as young as 12 to work in restaurants has exacerbated the problem.

"There is no incentive for employers to ensure children and adolescents are working in safe and legal situations or that they are being paid appropriately. Violations of employment standards laws simply result in a cease-and-desist order or an order to pay wages owed."

The study by Bob Barnetson, an assistant professor of labour relations at the Centre for Work and Community Studies at Athabasca University in Edmonton, involved a survey of 1,200 Alberta homes as well as followup interviews with parents and children or adolescents who participate in the workforce.

The interview data raised further concerns about potentially widespread violations of hours of work, minimum wage, call-in pay, minimum age, legal deductions and restaurant industry regulations, said the study “Effectiveness of complaint-driven regulation of child labour in Alberta” in Just Labour.

“This degree of non-compliance suggests that complaint-driven enforcement may not be an effective way to regulate child labour. The inability of potential complainants to recognize violations and their unwillingness to trigger enforcement appear to be key issues.”

Key study findings include:

• In 2009, 6.3 per cent of children had jobs — 8,200 children aged nine to 11. A total of 78 per cent of the jobs done by children were illegal, such as newspaper delivery or janitorial services. The remaining 22 per cent had jobs such as babysitting and yard work.

• 26,000 adolescent workers (12 to 14) were employed. More than 21 per cent worked in prohibited occupations (such as janitorial services, sports teams or working on a golf course). By contrast, 28.6 per cent of jobs appear to be legal types of employment (such as newspaper delivery, retail sales, restaurants or agriculture). The remaining 50 per cent of jobs were babysitting and yard work.

The effect of improbable enforcement may be exacerbated by the financial incentive employers have to not comply as well as the lack of meaningful consequence for violations, said the study.

“It may be possible to increase compliance with child labour laws by supplementing complaint-driven enforcement with significant numbers of random inspections.”

The AFL called on Alberta's Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk to immediately reverse the decision to allow children as young as 12 to work in restaurants and commit to a continuing program of random proactive employment standards inspections for employers who are known to employ underage workers. The minister also needs to make immediate changes to employment standards enforcement mechanisms and ensure prosecution of employers that break the law, said McGowan.

A copy of this study can be found at Just Labour.

HR Reporter, Thurs Apr 28 2011

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