EDMONTON-The death of a 14-year boy working with heavy equipment at the Reynolds Auto and Aircraft Museum in Wetaskiwin is a tragedy that illustrates why children should not be allowed to perform adult jobs, says the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"The provincial government opened a dangerous door last month when they said it was okay for 12 to 14 year-olds to work in restaurants," says Gil McGowan. "And then the Minister of Human Resources went further by telling the media that jobs actually help children build character. I wonder if the minister is singing the same tune today?"
The boy killed in Wetaskiwin did not have a permit to work and would not have been eligible for one even under the newly relaxed rules for child workers. But McGowan says by weakening its rules and being so openly dismissive of critics, the government has created a climate in which the safety of children has been put on the back burner.
"They've created an expectation and acceptance amongst both young people and adults, that kids can - and even should - be working," says McGowan. "It's a green light from the government - one that will likely lead to a repeat of the tragedy we've seen in Wetaskiwin."
McGowan says the government has attempted to pass off responsibility for regulating kids' involvement in the work place, saying it's up to the parents to decide. But he says that's not fair to parents.
"Young teens can seem very articulate and capable. And, as every parent knows, they can be very persuasive," says McGowan. "It's not hard to imagine a 12 or 13 year-old being able to convince his or her parents that they're ready to take a job. But at the end of the day, no matter how big, smart or tough these kids appear, they're still kids. And they need to be protected."
McGowan says that even the most mature 12 to 14 year olds lack the knowledge and experience to stand up for themselves in the workplace and recognize basic workplace hazards.
"This is not meant as a criticism of kids, but rather as an acknowledgement of reality - kids of that age are not ready to be in an adult work environment, especially if that environment includes dangers such as heavy equipment, fast fryers or cutting machines."
McGowan - who grew up on a farm and remembers pressuring his own parents for permission to work on heavy equipment at an early age - says his heart goes out to the father of the boy killed in Wetaskiwin.
"As a father of young kids, I can't even imagine the pain the family is feeling right now," he says. "But if we want to avoid this kind of thing from happening again, what we need is a strong message from the government. We need firm regulations so that when an eager youngster asks for permission to work, parents can honestly say: �You'll have to wait another few years son. It's the law.'"
With that in mind, McGowan is encouraging the government to reconsider its recent policy changes regarding kids in the workforce.
"Whether it's a machine shop or a fast-food kitchen, kids should not be working there. This tragedy is a wake-up call - one that should not be ignored."