Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sask. Party gov’t sets ‘absolute’ minimum age of employment at 14, CFIB complains it’s not lower; labour shortage main reason for change

Looking out of place dressed in a suit on a hot summer day, Advanced Education, Employment and Labour (AEEL) Minister Rob Norris was at a Burger Baron restaurant in Regina on July 22 to announce that the province was setting the general minimum age of employment at 16 and the ‘absolute’ minimum age at 14, provided those 14 and 15 year old workers fulfill certain requirements. The only thing missing from the cheesy photo-op were disposable gloves and a hairnet.

(The Burger Baron, by the way, is listed in Saskatchewan Party financial records as having contributed $809.47 to the political party last year.)

“These changes to the minimum age of employment are the result of consultations we conducted with stakeholders and the public,” Norris said in a government news release. “Establishing an absolute minimum age of employment in Saskatchewan will ensure that young peoples’ education is not compromised while at the same time allowing them to gain employment experience.”

The government did not release a report summarizing the feedback it received or identify the stakeholders consulted.

According to the news release 14 and 15 year olds who wish to work are subject to the following restrictions:

– obtain the consent of their parent or guardian;

– complete a certificate focusing on occupational health and safety and employment standards;

– not work after 10 p.m. on a day preceding a school day or before the time that school starts on any school day; and

– work no more than a maximum of 16 hours of work during a school week.

Prior to this, only five sectors had a minimum age of employment: hotels, restaurants, educational institutions, hospitals and nursing homes.

On December 23, 2008, the government announced that the minimum age of employment in these sectors would be lowered in mid-January from 16 to 15 – with the stipulation that 15 year olds could not work more than 16 hours per week.

That restriction was reviewed in May 2009, following a consultation process which began in January.

The December decision was made without public debate or discussion continuing the Saskatchewan Party government’s backward tradition of announcing changes first then seeking input later. The tactic was used to introduce essential services legislation and make amendments to The Trade Union Act and more recently The Construction Industry Labour Relations Act.

In June, Norris was recognized as one of Premier Brad Wall’s worst cabinet minister’s. Leader-Post political columnist Murray Mandryk slapped the minister with a D grade in his annual cabinet report card saying Norris “was supposed to put a more reasoned, intelligent face on the government. Well, relations with labour are still bad (or worse than expected) and it’s because of unfavourable legislation. Part of it is because of a minister who still neither communicates nor listens particularly well.” [Grading the Class of ’09 (Leader-Post, June 27, 2009)]

Mandryk said labour is “critical to the government right now,” which is probably why Norris kept his job following Wall’s cabinet shuffle in May. Replacing him would admit mistakes were made and that’s something the premier won’t do on this particular file. Wall clearly despises labour. When he was the leader of the opposition he once said on a local talk radio show that he was willing to go to “war with unions.”

On January 23, when the government launched consultations on an absolute minimum age of employment in Saskatchewan, Norris said in a news release that “our highest priorities are the health and safety, education and overall well-being of Saskatchewan young people.”

A discussion paper accompanying the news release notes: “In 2007, 740 young people 17 years of age and under experienced workplace injuries.” In 2008, the total was 780.

In fact, according to Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board statistics, injuries in this age group have risen each year since 2003 and have doubled since 2001, when a low of 368 was reported. The Wall government’s opening of the flood gates to allow more young teens into the workforce will more than likely lead to even higher injury numbers.

One thing the media did not report about the new regulations is that according to a government fact sheet released on July 22: “The hours of work restrictions do not apply during school holidays. As a result, during holidays, 14 and 15 year olds can work the same hours as other people in the workforce.”

This means that for at least two months during the summer young workers can be exploited by employers to the fullest extent. Presumably, it also means that the hours of work restriction won’t apply during the spring and Christmas breaks either.

How about statutory holidays that fall during a school week? Will any time worked on those days count towards the maximum 16 hours that a young person can work per week?

What if, for whatever reason, a 14 or 15 year old is not attending school, would only two of the four restrictions then apply (i.e. must have parental consent; and, complete a certificate program)?

In the article Sask. sets new labour rules (Leader-Post, July 23, 2009) Norris said the new changes will allow for a balance between success in school, workplace safety, and gaining employment experience. What he failed to mention is that the changes will also fill gaps in the labour market, which is what he told the public in December.

This, more than anything else, is the reason for the changes. This fact was made clear by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) in its submission to Norris’s ministry during the minimum age of employment consultation process.

In a letter dated May 1 to the then AEEL deputy minister, Wynne Young, Marilyn Braun-Pollon, Saskatchewan vice-president of the CFIB, said, “While CFIB agrees work safety and a focus on education is extremely important, we believe it is also important to provide young people with opportunities to gain valuable work experience.

“It is our understanding that an absolute minimum age of employment exists in other jurisdictions under specific conditions: Alberta – 12 years of age; Manitoba – 12 years of age except in special circumstances; British Columbia – 12 years of age except with Director’s permission.”

Braun-Pollon told Young that 76 per cent of CFIB Saskatchewan members surveyed “agreed youth between the ages of 12 and 14 who wish to work should be required to provide proof of parental permission and complete an employment readiness program prior to being eligible for employment.”

“Given these results, CFIB believes changes are required to help address the continued labour shortages experienced by Saskatchewan employers across the province. Positive economic growth in Saskatchewan has brought new challenges, such as the growing concern over the shortage of qualified labour. In fact, the number of members identifying labour shortages as a concern has increased 53 per cent in the last six years, from 43 per cent in 2002 to 66 per cent today. Our demographics suggest the shortage of qualified labour is a problem that is not going to go away anytime soon,” she said.

“The long-term vacancy rate among Canada’s small businesses also continues to grow with Saskatchewan reporting the highest rate in 2007, taking the lead from Alberta. CFIB estimates 18,000 of these unfilled positions in small- and medium-sized firms were in Saskatchewan. By sector, the hospitality sector had the second highest long-term vacancy rate in Saskatchewan.”

What better way to address the problem than with kids just out of public school who likely lack the capacity to question authority and assert their rights.

The CFIB’s claim that it “agrees with the provincial government that the highest priorities, when reviewing the minimum age of employment, must be the health and safety, education and overall well-being of Saskatchewan young people” sounds just as phony as Norris’s spiel.

In fact, following the minister’s announcement on July 22, Braun-Pollon complained that the changes ‘aren’t in line with the other prairie provinces, where there are established parameters for 12-to-14-year olds to work.’ [Sask. sets new labour rules (Leader-Post, July 23, 2009)]

None of the government’s news releases on the subject give clear reasons why the changes are necessary. Fortunately, because of a freedom of information request to Enterprise Saskatchewan earlier this year, one document has been disclosed that provides this information.

The Regulatory Modernization Council (RMC), at its March 6, 2009, meeting, received a copy of a PowerPoint presentation by AEEL on the consultations for minimum age regulations. One of the slides titled ‘Why Change? gives the following reasons:

– Response to feedback from employers and workers
– Saskatchewan’s talent challenge or labour shortage
– Out-of-step with other provinces and territories in Canada

(It should be noted that Braun-Pollon serves on the RMC, which the government established on September 17, 2008. The RMC is mandated to recommend regulatory reform and business services priorities and forward them to the Enterprise Saskatchewan Board.)

The first reason requires further clarification. Which specific employers and workers is the government referring to and under what circumstances was the ‘feedback’ obtained? Was it in response to the consultations that were underway at the time or was it received prior to the changes that were announced in December 2008?

The third reason is a red herring and should be eliminated right off the bat. The Wall government has not provided any evidence to show that the province’s competitiveness is suffering greatly by not having a general or ‘absolute’ minimum age of employment for all sectors. It’s not as if hordes of Saskatchewan families are packing up and moving to Alberta, Manitoba or British Columbia because their 12 and 13 year old children can’t work in burger joints and retail stores here.

That leaves one reason for the new regulations: labour shortage.


At 2:24 PM, Blogger Dave Black said...

Anyone that thought the Wall Government would be anything but hostile to working people wasn't paying attention. We have a premier and a government that are passing union-busting legislation, and at the same time working towards more and more child labour. After all, kids work cheap, and don't talk back to the boss, for fear of retaliation. That's music to the ears of union busters.

This group has fought every minimum wage increase, every labour friendly initiative, saying it would kill business. Instead, the economy flourished under the former ND government, and has only slowed down under these folks.

The saddest part of this whole thing is that some union members actually voted for these people, and by the time we get rid of them, hopefully in 2011, we will have to spend the first whole term undoing their anti-worker legislation before we can introduce a progressive agenda once again.

We do, indeed get the government we deserve.


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