Saturday, December 27, 2008

Brad Wall government lowers minimum age of employment to 15 without public debate or discussion; CFIB and Sask. Chamber applaud move


Christmas arrived early this year for Saskatchewan business lobby groups. On Dec. 23, 2008, the Saskatchewan Party government announced that in mid-January the minimum age of employment will be lowered to 15 in hotels, restaurants, educational institutions, hospitals and nursing homes. Prior to this change, the minimum age for working in those five sectors was 16.

The change was made without public debate or discussion.

In a news release, the government said fifteen-year-olds will not be allowed to work more than 16 hours per week to ensure they have sufficient time to dedicate to their school work. The change will be reviewed in May 2009, following a consultation process starting in January. The government will also look at an absolute minimum age of employment in Saskatchewan and other employment standards to protect the well-being of young people entering the workforce.

There is currently no absolute minimum age of employment outside of the five sectors - hotels, restaurants, educational institutions, hospitals and nursing homes. Current legislation continues to restrict the employment of young people during school hours, in the sale, handling or service of alcohol, and in certain high-risk occupations.

“Lowering the minimum age of employment gives Saskatchewan young people valuable opportunities to obtain work experience, while filling gaps in our labour market,” said Advanced Education, Employment and Labour (AEEL) Minister Rob Norris.

In the article Age drops for teen workers (Leader-Post, Dec. 24, 2008) Norris said the change is the first “practical, common-sense” step in a larger reform of minimum working-age laws.

According to story, Marilyn Braun-Pollon of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) applauded the move as beneficial to both the business sector and young workers.

“When we surveyed them, 64 per cent of our members believed the minimum age of employment should be set at 15 for all workplaces. So it’s going to be good news for business owners. It will help them deal with labour shortages in those sectors,”' she said.

“It’s also good news for young people. It will provide them with valuable work experience and also an opportunity to earn some extra spending money.”

Dale Lemke, president of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, agreed the move to lower the minimum working age will help alleviate the labour shortage and provide needed work experience and income for young people.

“We certainly don’t condone kids quitting school,” Lemke said. “But on the other hand, I think when they’re 15, they’re ready for some responsibility and ready to learn some job techniques and get some experience in the job market.”

What goes unsaid is that these jobs will be part-time with low wages and little or no benefits. Also in businesses’ favour is that young workers likely won’t understand occupational health and safety issues, overtime pay and minimum wage, or know their rights well enough to challenge abusive or unsafe working conditions.

Norris’s comment exposes the fact that, regardless of any consultation, other changes are coming.

The CFIB believes the minimum age should be the same for “all workplaces.” Given the lobby group’s close working relationship with the Saskatchewan Party it’s a safe bet they will get their wish.

Left unexplained is why the urgency? The issue seemed to have come out of nowhere. It was not mentioned in the Saskatchewan Party’s 2007 election platform or in the party’s policy book. Nor is it included in Norris’s Nov. 21, 2007, mandate letter from Premier Brad Wall.

Then at the Saskatchewan Party convention held in Saskatoon from November 14 to 16, delegates passed a resolution brought forward by the party’s youth wing calling for the government to lower to 15 the current minimum age of 16 required to work in hotels, educational institutions, hospitals and nursing homes.

“That’s obviously one we’ll want to deal with very, very quickly,” Wall told reporters. [Gov’t keeping promises: Wall (StarPhoenix, Nov. 17, 2008)]

On Sept. 25, 2008, the Leader-Post reported that thirteen 15-year-old employees at Rochdale Dairy Queen, and seven more from Normanview Dairy Queen, were let go after an investigation by labour standard officers determined the 20 employees were underage as defined by Saskatchewan labour legislation.

Mike Carr, AEEL’s associate deputy minister, explained that the legislation initially came in as a public policy initiative intended to keep kids in school. The legislation is still in place to ensure the safety of youth.

“It’s really all about the safety of youth who are entering the workforce and their readiness to enter the world of work. That they understand rights, duties, responsibilities and entitlements under our various pieces of legislation,” Carr said.

Because Saskatchewan has a short supply of available workers, there may well be other fast food restaraunts in the city with underage employees. These businesses may get away with it because, as Carr explains, it’s a complaint-driven process.

“We don’t have the resources to go out and check workplaces on an audit basis. That’s not the role or function that our labour standards officers fulfill. They would simply respond to a complaint or inquiry ... and apply the law,” he said.

Carr said the ministry was reviewing the legislation.

“We’re looking at (legislation) in the context of what’s reasonable and what’s practical. Government is going to have to ... determine what they view is in the public interest.” [Underage DQ employees forced out of work (Leader-Post, Sept. 25, 2008)]

In the article Gov’t may change rules for underage workers (StarPhoenix, Sept. 27, 2008) Premier Brad Wall said the government was already looking at the legislation before the layoffs happened, but the labour standards officer had no choice but to follow the law.

Curiously, any reaction by the CFIB or Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce to the story wasn’t reported, but now that the law has been changed they have plenty to say.

The articles raise some interesting questions:

1) What triggered the investigation of the Dairy Queen? If it was a complaint who filed it and what were the circumstances surrounding it?

2) When exactly did the Wall government begin looking at the legislation and why?

3) If it’s all about the safety of youth why must the process remain complaint driven?

4) If it’s all about the safety of youth will the government commit more resources to go out and inspect workplaces? If not, why?

Furthermore, the Leader-Post failed to let readers know that, prior to his appointment without competition in Mar. 2008, AEEL’s Mike Carr was co-chair of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce’s human resources committee and has contributed to the Saskatchewan Party.

It appears the main justification given by the government and business lobby for the change is twofold. First, it provides young teenagers with work experience, and second, it fills job vacancies.

The former fails even the most basic level of scrutiny. If thrusting 15 year-olds into the grim, free market rat race to get “valuable work experience” is so urgent and necessary why then are we only hearing about it now? Where have the Saskatchewan Party, the CFIB and Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce been the last few years to champion the cause?

In looking at various documents posted on the CFIB and Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce websites there doesn’t appear to be any documents calling for the minimum age of employment to be lowered – no letters, reports, presentations or surveys. It seems to have been a non-issue, until now.

(It should be noted that when contacted on Dec. 24 about the StarPhoenix and Leader-Post stories on the change in the minimum age for employment, staff at the CFIB office in Regina said the survey of members quoted by Braun-Pollon was conducted in Sept. 2008. One would think that if this is such a pressing issue its members would have been surveyed long before the Dairy Queen incident.)

Braun-Pollon sent a letter dated Feb. 15, 20008, to AEEL deputy minister Wynne Young praising the government’s anti-union legislation (Bills 5 and 6) that was introduced in the legislature on Dec. 19, 2007.

“We applaud your government for taking these first steps and look forward to working with your government to further introduce other policies that help create a more competitive Saskatchewan,” Braun-Pollon said.

Braun-Pollon’s letter concludes by listing seven areas where the “CFIB believes there are additional changes that your government must consider in the future.” None, however, include lowering the minimum age of employment.

In Jan. 2008, Braun-Pollon submitted a report called Saskatchewan – Poised to Lead the Nation: Small business 2008-09 pre-budget priorities to Finance Minister Rod Gantefoer in advance of the provincial budget. Of the recommendations listed and priorities expressed by small business in the areas of labour laws and labour shortage none include lowering the minimum age of employment.

In Sept. 2007, the CFIB released The Future of Saskatchewan Survey: Small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) pre-election priorities. The results were based on an on-line survey of 2,300 CFIB members in Saskatchewan from August 8 to 28, 2007. In total, 330 business owners from all industries completed the survey. The report outlines small business development priorities for the next five years. Among the numerous recommendations concerning labour laws and strategies to address shortage of qualified labour none include lowering the minimum age of employment.

In Oct. 2007, just before the provincial election, the CFIB sent the leaders of the three main political parties the Saskatchewan 2007 Leaders’ Survey on Small Business Issues.

The survey posed four questions on balancing labour laws, with none mentioning the minimum age of employment, and one that asked leaders to answer, ‘What concrete initiatives will you undertake to address the growing shortage of skilled labour?’

The Saskatchewan Party’s response to the CFIB did not include lowering the minimum age of employment.

The story is similar at the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce website.

In December 2008, the Chamber circulated its annual economic outlook survey to its membership. There was a 14.8% respondent rate.

The results show that the business issues in order of priority for 2009 are:

1. Building Market Share- Sales Development
2. Workforce – Training, Retaining, and Locating Staff
3. Taxation – Corporate and/ or Personal
4. Capital Expansion
5. Paper Burden – Regulatory Compliance, Permits, etc.
6. Other:
– Economy – Global Financial Issues- Economic Crisis – International Markets

– Aggressive Union demands with little interest for the well being of the employer entity

– Research & Development activities

– Environmental concerns

– Availability of financing – Credit issues

– Government investment

Aside from the usual union bashing and complaints about regulations and taxes, there is nothing to indicate that lowering the minimum age of employment is a priority or concern for Chamber members.

Additionally, none of the resolutions passed at the Chamber’s 2007 or 2008 Annual General Meeting include the subject.

If the CFIB and Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce were worried about 15 year-olds not getting work experience it doesn’t appear to have been something that was communicated publicly.

That brings up the second reason why the change was made – to fill job vacancies.

On Mar. 13, 2007, the CFIB issued a news release with the headline: Thousands of Canadian jobs in small business continue to go unfilled: CFIB estimates 15,000 positions vacant in Sask for more than four months in 2006.

According to the lobby group’s latest research it estimated that nationally there were 251,000 full- and part-time positions in small- and medium-sized businesses unfilled for at least four months in 2006, with 15,000 jobs open in Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan had the second highest long-term vacancy rate at 5.7 per cent, compared to 4.3 per cent in 2005.

“While the level of concern over the shortage of labour has been alarmingly high for the past few years, in 2006 it reached an all-time high in many provinces,” said CFIB’s Saskatchewan director Marilyn Braun-Pollon. “Roughly one in four Canadian businesses experienced at least one long-term vacancy at their firm last year. That is a lot of lost productivity for our economy.”

The news release noted that long-term vacancies were common in businesses in all sectors, but smaller firms in the construction, agriculture and hospitality sectors were particularly hard hit. Firms in the hospitality industry experienced the highest jump in the vacancy rate since 2005, going from 2.7 per cent to 4.3 in 2006.

The CFIB said it found that firms are increasingly short of entry-level workers, with 17 per cent reporting they most needed workers to fill positions requiring no formal education.

“Knowing where the shortages are being felt most keenly is an important step in making sure our education and training programs, as well as the immigration system, is attuned to the actual opportunities in the work-force,” Braun-Pollon said in the news release.

The accompanying nine-page report Help Wanted: Long-term vacancies grow for Canada’s entrepreneurs (Mar. 2007) concluded “There is no single solution for solving the problem of the shortage of labour. Governments, educational institutions, and the business community need to work together in order to find long-term solutions. Tapping into traditionally under-represented groups in the labour market such as new immigrants, seniors, people with disabilities, and aboriginals is part of the solution.”

Oddly, there is no mention of targeting young teenagers to fill some of the gaps, especially the entry-level ones.

Nineteen months later the news had apparently gotten worse. In the article What makes a province confident (Ottawa Citizen, Oct. 21, 2008) Braun-Pollon said that Saskatchewan currently has about 18,000 job vacancies, an increase of 3,000 from what was reported in Mar. 2007.

This figure was first announced in a CFIB news release on Mar. 7, 2008, which noted that the organization’s latest Help Wanted report showed that the national long-term vacancy rate rose to 4.4 per cent in 2007 from 3.6 per cent in 2006. Saskatchewan reported the highest rate in 2007 at 6.6 per cent, taking the lead from Alberta, where the rate of 6.3 per cent was unchanged from 2006.

“While there is no single solution to the shortage of labour issue, CFIB has recommended measures such as tapping into under-represented groups, including immigrants, aboriginals and seniors, as well as better recognizing and encouraging informal training at smaller workplaces,” the news release states.

No reference is made to “tapping” into the youth market. So what gives?

Perhaps the real truth of the matter is that Saskatchewan’s business lobby groups simply don’t want the negative publicly that would come with openly trying to recruit young teenagers to fill the low paying jobs that are sitting vacant. To do so might make them look predatory, exploiting the inexperience of youth to boost profits and alleviate severe labour shortages in low paying sectors. Naturally, the next best thing to do would be to work quietly with their friends in the new Wall government who would be only too happy to help. And that they did, pushing through the change without public discussion or consultation in an announcement two days before Christmas when most everyone was too busy to notice or respond.

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