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Saskatchewan's new minimum working age raises safety concerns

By Mari-Len De Guzman

The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) has expressed concern over the safety of younger workers as a result of a recent amendment to the province’s Minimum Wage Regulations, which establishes the age 14 as an “absolute” minimum working age.

Young people are more susceptible to health and safety risks in the workplace because they’re not adequately trained, SFL president Larry Hubich said.

“They’re vulnerable to pressure or perceived pressure from the employer to work, and so are not likely or as likely to challenge a workplace that’s violating labour standards, their rights as a worker with respect to their entitlements under labour laws and ofcourse, not likely to exercise their right to refuse dangerous work if they feel uncomfortable doing the job because of safety (concerns),” Hubich said.

Last January, the Saskatchewan government lowered the minimum age of employment from 16 to 15 for five sectors where there is minimum age requirement. These sectors include hotels, restaurants, educational institutions, hospitals and nursing homes.

With the recent amendments, the absolute minimum age requirement of 14 years old will apply to all sectors of the economy, except in certain high-risk workplaces listed under the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, which have a higher minimum age of employment requirement.

Under the new Minimum Wage Regulations, the “general” minimum age of employment for all sectors is 16 years old. However, employers can hire workers who are at least 14 years old provided these teens meet certain conditions, namely: obtain the consent of their parent or guardian; not work after 10:00 p.m. on a day preceding a school day or before the time that school starts on any school day; work no more than a maximum of 16 hours during a school week, and; complete a certificate focusing on occupational health and safety and employment standards.

The province’s Ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour is currently developing the Young Worker Readiness certification program, which 14- and 15-year-old workers would have to complete prior to employment, according to Daniel Parrot, director of legal and education services at the ministry’s labour standards branch.

Parrot said the program, which is expected to be ready before the end of the year, is being developed as an online tool. An employer wishing to hire a 14- or 15-year-old would have to require this certificate from the young worker, Parrot said.

“Eventually, we are hoping that this could be something that could be rolled into the high school curriculum,” Parrot said.

Hubich, however, noted that the requirement for workers under the age of 16 to complete a certificate on occupational health and safety does not guarantee that these workers will become safer at work. Of particular issue is the fact that the tests will be done online.

“I don’t know if the government is actually capable of ensuring that the certificate is being actually filled out by a 14-year old sitting at home in front of their computer or whether it’s being done by their employer or whether it’s being done by somebody else. If that is how you acquire the certificate or if that’s an accurate representation of what is being required here, that’s not appropriate health and safety training,” said Hubich.

While acknowledging that the certificate program is something that will “continuously be under development,” Parrot pointed out that despite the new minimum age and the requirements that go with that, employers would still have to comply with existing occupational health and safety legislation.

“I think one important point to consider is the fact that there are also age restrictions in the Occupational Health and Safety Act, so what we are proposing is under the Labour Standards regulation. They won’t be affecting any of the age restrictions that currently exist under the occupational health and safety regime,” Parrot said.

In a statement, the SFL also noted that the province’s new absolute minimum age of employment “runs counter to the International Labour Organization’s guidelines of a minimum of 16 years of age in developed countries.”

“The actions of the Saskatchewan government totally disregarded this United Nations agency which represents business, government and labour,” SFL said.

Asked to comment on the ILO issue, the ministry’s legislative services unit, policy and planning branch said that Canada is “not a signatory to this particular ILO Convention.”

In an e-mailed statement, acting director Pat Parenteau added, “Irrespective of this, I would note that Saskatchewan is confident that establishing an absolute minimum age of (14) with employment restrictions is consistent with the intent of the ILO and UN Conventions on the protection of children.

“Restrictions are in place to ensure that parents approve of employment, as well as the hours of work restrictions ensure that education is a top priority. In addition, there are the protections provided by the Labour Standards Act and regulations to ensure that young people are not exploited.”

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