Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Alberta's new child-labour laws don't apply on farms

Photo: Christian Fischer
In early December, Alberta rolled out new rules regulating the employment of children. As January 1, 2019, the rules are this:
  • Children 12 and under cannot be employed except in artistic productions and then, only with a permit and parental permission. These new rules raise the minimum age of employment from 12 to 13.
  • Teens aged 13 and 14 can work in a small number of listed occupations during limited hours, both of which are largely unchanged from the Tory years. They can also perform other work with a permit from Employment Standards
  • Teens 15 to 17 can perform basically any job, but there are a small number of restrictions on hours of work.
Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) rules also require all employers to have a hazard assessment that identifies hazards and how they will be controlled.

Overall, not much has changed except that the 12-year-olds are no longer allowed to work.  There is also some fancy dancing around the issue of teens who are self-employed contractors, the upshot of which basically permits kids of any age to participate in casual babysitting, snow shoveling, and lawn mowing but precludes such work as regular employment for those under 15.

These rules are better than earlier proposals that would have allowed 13 and 14-year-olds to also perform light janitorial work, grounds-keeping work (including using powered equipment), light assembly work, and painting—all of which are jobs that would expose teens to significant hazards.

The most troubling part of this announcement is the note that none of these rules apply to children or teens employed on farms and ranches. I was not able to find a copy of the new Employment Standards Regulation, but I did confirm this with the ES call centre.

Practically, what this means is that there are still no rules around child employment on farms and ranches. This is a broader exception than that which has been enacted in others branch of Alberta employment law following Bill 6, which typically excludes paid family members from the ambit of certain laws but includes non-family farm workers. So not only can farmers and ranchers employ their own children on their farms, they can employer other people's children as well.

It is stunning that a New Democrat government would exclude perhaps the most vulnerable group of workers in one of the most dangerous industries in Alberta from its new child labour laws. While there are lots of safe(ish) jobs on farms and ranches (such as the near-apocryphal collecting-eggs-with-grandma example that is always trotted out), it is dangerous for children to be proximity to many kinds of farm work (as evidenced by blind equipment run-downs and drownings).

The absence of child labour laws on farms means that a farmer could hire a 9-year-old to drive a grain truck, a 10-year-old to transfer grain to a silo using an auger, an 11-year-old to clean a silo, a 12-year-old to herd a dozen 1300lb dairy cows, a 13-year-old to operate a legacy potato-sorting machine with no safeguards, and a 14-year-old to run a posthole digger of a chain saw.

In theory, the employer is supposed to do a hazard assessment (at least for non-family employees), which would flag these jobs as inappropriate for such young workers. But most Alberta employers don’t comply with that requirement, so it won't protect children. And, sure, workers can refuse unsafe work. But children simply aren’t going to recognize and refuse unsafe work--which is, of course, why we have child labour laws in the first place.

So the result of the government’s decision to exempt farms from child labour laws is going to be children placed in hazardous employment situations, some of whom will be maimed and killed as a result. 

Perhaps these children would be maimed and killed even if the laws prohibited dangerous farm work (which is why we need stepped-up enforcement). But at least then the government wouldn’t be sanctioning and indeed normalizing work that will lead to the injury and death of children.

-- Bob Barnetson

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