Saturday, March 26, 2011

Wall government changed minimum age of employment to appease Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association

Premier Brad Wall (centre) accepts personalized
chef jacket from lobby group and Sask. Party contributor
Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, Nov. 2010

When the Saskatchewan Party government announced it was lowering the minimum age of employment in hotels, restaurants, educational institutions, hospitals and nursing homes from 16 to 15 a few years ago, the primary reason was that it would give more young people the opportunity to gain valuable work experience.

“Lowering the minimum age of employment gives Saskatchewan young people valuable opportunities to obtain work experience, while filling gaps in our labour market,” then-Advanced Education, Employment and Labour Minister Rob Norris said in a news release on December 23, 2008.

The change would be reviewed in May 2009, following a consultation process starting in January, the news release said.

The decision was made without prior public consultation or legislative debate.

Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Larry Hubich at the time suspected the changes were being rushed through in order to appease the business community.

“I have no doubt in my mind that the government is doing this because they’re getting pressure from certain business lobby groups to open up the door to allow younger workers,” Hubich told the Leader-Post, adding that some businesses are finding it hard to attract workers because they’re paying low wages and little or no benefits. [Age drops for teen workers (Leader-Post, December 24, 2008)]

Thanks to Saskatchewan’s information and privacy commissioner we now know that Hubich was right. It wasn’t about doing something positive for young teens; it was about placating the business and industry lobby groups that had been pressuring the Wall government to make changes.

According to a briefing note dated October 8, 2008, by the policy and evaluation branch in the former Ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour, a number of business organizations and business owners had been requesting a lowering of the age of employment in their industries.

“In particular, the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association and some of their members have expressed dismay that retail stores and gas stations can hire individuals the age of 16 while they cannot,” the document says.

“Business stakeholders have suggested that a more realistic minimum age limit would be 15, with further allowances for younger adolescents under prescribed conditions.”

(The CRFA donated $732.19 to the Saskatchewan Party in 2008 and purchased two tickets for Premier Brad Wall’s dinner on April 29, 2010, in Saskatoon. The lobby group was also against raising the minimum wage in Saskatchewan and supported introducing a training wage for new employees for the first 500 hours of work, a regressive measure that the Province of British Columbia recently abandoned.)

The argument seemed to be that a lower limit would recognize the current situation across Canada, by which all adolescents have some rights to seek employment if they are under the jurisdiction’s general minimum age restrictions.

However, the briefing note gives no indication it was young teenagers or parents that were seeking changes to the legislation. On the contrary, it was the business community – looking for a new source of cheap, expendable labour to fill vacant positions – that was demanding the law be amended.

“The current employment shortage have put increased pressure on businesses when recruiting workers and there have been requests for this age limit to be reduced,” the briefing note says.

The document notes that some media linked the issue to the Wall government’s Ontario trip to recruit workers to Saskatchewan.

“The Province needs employees of all kinds and the Government is looking at all ways to ensure an adequate workforce,” it states. “That includes working within the Province, throughout Canada and throughout the world.”

Apparently, the solution includes young teens.

The business community was unhappy with section 8 of The Minimum Wage Regulations, which required an employee to be at least 16 years old to work in educational institutions, hospitals, nursing homes, hotels or restaurants.

“Critics of this section point to other industries where there are a significant number of young workers and there is no similar age restriction, such as the retail or gas stations,” the briefing note said. In other words, these other industries wanted the opportunity to exploit cheap, young labour too.

In September 2008, the news media stirred up controversy when it reported that 20 15-year-old employees at two Dairy Queen stores in northwest Regina were laid off after an investigation by labour standards officers found they were underage. Premier Brad Wall shamelessly used the situation to promote his desire for changes to the legislation.

The briefing note confirms that the province was already reviewing the legislation at the time of the incident “as part of an overall review of labour legislation.” (Note: The Workers’ Compensation Act is currently under review and, according to the Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety strategic plan for 2011-12, the “occupational health and safety regulatory regime” is the Wall government’s next target.)

What the public wasn’t told is that the story began on September 19, 2008, when the labour standards office in Regina “received an anonymous complaint from an upset father about his under-aged son working at the local Dairy Queen. The father was concerned about the risk of injury and, in particular, that his son would not be covered by the Workers’ Compensation Board (labour standards officials subsequently confirmed that Worker’s Compensation would cover a worker, even one that was under aged). The father said he would be going to the media with his concerns.”

A labour standards officer contacted the company to advise them of the requirement for employees to be 16 years of age. The employer contact was not aware of the provision, which had been in existence since 1971. The officer informed the employer that to be in compliance they would have to terminate the employment of those employees that were not 16 years old. The company representative understood and said that they would do what was necessary to comply.

“The father called back indicating he was very pleased with the outcome and thanked the labour standards officer for the quick response,” the briefing note states.

So it was simply a case of a parent looking out for their child. The media and Wall government withheld this information and instead turned the story into one about labour regulation run amok.

The briefing note clearly states: “The purpose of the regulation is to allow youth to focus on the successful completion of their education.” But for the Wall government and its friends in the business community it became about filling gaps in the labour market.

On July 22, 2009, the Wall government established age 16 as the general minimum age of employment in all sectors of the Saskatchewan economy. An ‘absolute’ minimum age of 14 was also established, provided those 14 and 15 year old workers fulfill certain requirements.

Unfortunately, the public was forced to endure another round of then-AEEL Minister Rob Norris trying to sucker anyone who would listen into believing the change was made so young people could gain some work experience. Yeah, right. It had nothing to do with the business community.

The briefing note was obtained through an access to information request submitted to AEEL under The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act in December 2008. Former AEEL deputy minister Wynne Young denied the request in its entirety claiming the responsive records contained confidences of cabinet and advice from government officials. Young’s decision was appealed to the information commissioner for review.

In a letter dated March 11, 2011, Mike Carr, deputy minister of labour relations and workplace safety, said that the information commissioner asked LRWS to review the file. As it turns out, only one record responsive to the original request was located. Carr noted that section 16(1)(a)(c) “should not have been applied as an exemption since the record does not relate to a Cabinet document.”

Carr added: “Upon review of the file, I agree to provide partial access to the record pursuant to section 8 of the Act.” This section is mandatory and requires government institutions to give access to as much of the record as can reasonably be severed without disclosing the information to which the applicant is refused access.

Carr did not explain why his predecessor falsely claimed the record was cabinet-related and failed to apply section 8 – an offence that has been committed in almost every ministry since the Wall government took power.

Labour Relations and Workplace Safety Minister
Don Morgan (centre) with CRFA officials, Nov. 2010


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