Publisher's Desk|Canadian HR Law|HR Policies & Practices|Employment Law|The C-Suite|HR Guest Blog

The rules for children are different

When kids are on the payroll, ‘complaint-driven regulation’ doesn’t suffice

By Todd Humber

There are few absolutes in life, but this is one: The rules for children are different.

Adults, well, we can pretty much do what we want. We can stay up late, binge drink and ride a bicycle without a helmet — all to our heart’s content. The basic logic is that, as grown-ups, we know and understand the consequences of our actions (in theory, anyway).

But children don’t have that capacity.

So when an employer makes the decision to hire a child, it’s taking on an incredible responsibility. But too many employers aren’t seeing it that way, according to research out of Athabasca University in Edmonton.

Bob Barnetson, an assistant labour relations professor at Athabasca’s Centre for Work and Community Studies, conducted a study to find out how effective “complaint-driven regulation” of child labour is in Alberta. Complaint-driven regulation means the government generally relies on individuals to file complaints.

To put it bluntly, that system is absolutely not working when it comes to child labour. (One could also argue it isn’t entirely effective for adults — but that’s a topic for another day.)

Barnetson’s research found 6.3 per cent of children (age nine to 11) and 19.4 per cent of adolescents (age 12 to 14) were employed in Alberta in 2008-2009. Not surprising.

But what is disconcerting is that 78 per cent of children and more than 21 per cent of adolescents who were employed worked in prohibited occupations.

In 19 of 20 interviews Barnetson conducted with parents and children he uncovered violations of employment standards rules — that’s a 95 per cent non-compliance rate. Violations included working too many hours, receiving less than minimum wage and working in prohibited occupations or performing prohibited tasks.

Minors are less likely to know their rights. And children are less likely to question adults. Just think back to your first job. When I was 14, I worked at a restaurant as a dishwasher — whatever the owner asked, I did. Washing dishes, cleaning out the grease pit, standing in a hot wok while my shoes melted as I cleaned the oven hood and tilling and planting the garden. Not all of it was safe, but at that age you’re looking to impress your boss, not cause a ruckus over safety or be labeled a “wimp” because you’re afraid to do something unsafe.

There are plenty of great reasons for children and adolescents to have part-time and summer jobs. It teaches them the merits of hard work, the value of a dollar and gives them great life experience.

But if we’re going to send our children into the workplace, we — and this is the collective, societal “we” — have an obligation to ensure their safety and rights are respected. That includes proactive (not reactive) enforcement of rules, including random inspections of workplaces that employ children.

We wouldn’t tolerate not putting babies and toddlers in car seats. Many jurisdictions have banned smoking in vehicles when anyone under the age of 16 is present. We would never rely on “complaint driven regulation” — those laws are actively and aggressively enforced. The same rules must apply when it comes to children in the workplace.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at or (416) 298-5196.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
(Required, will not be published)
All comments are moderated and usually appear within 24 hours of posting. Email address will not be published.