How young is too young?

Saskatchewan reviews minimum working age

Last March, 24-year-old Grant De Patie was killed shortly after midnight while trying to stop a young man from stealing $12 worth of gas in Maple Ridge, B.C. In August, 18-year-old Jennifer Teague was killed walking home from her restaurant job at 12:30 a.m. in Ottawa. So far this year, at least two more teenagers have died on the job during night-time robberies — one at a gas station in Montreal, the other at a convenience store in Winnipeg.

With so many accounts of young people being killed while working late or on their way home from a late shift, there have been calls to tighten legislation that protects young workers.

However, Larry Hubrich, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, is worried Saskatchewan is gearing up to do the exact opposite.

After more than 20 years, Saskatchewan’s Minimum Wage Board is reviewing the province’s minimum age of employment and a law that requires employers to give a free ride home to employees who finish work after 12:30 a.m.

“The questions seem to be leading in the direction of easing up on workplace age limits and easing up on whether or not employers should be required to provide rides home,” said Hubrich, referring to the questions the board raised in its call for submissions. “I think the board’s looking for answers that would give it justification to reduce the minimum age.”

He said the business community is already pushing to get rid of the laws that prevent anyone under the age of 16 from working in hotels, restaurants, educational institutions, hospitals and nursing homes and that require these same employers to provide free rides home to anyone who finishes work between 12:30 a.m. and 7 a.m.

While the Hotels Association of Saskatchewan has no clear-cut policy on the issue, “we would be in favour (of) them dropping the minimum age,” said president and CEO Tom Mullin.

Larry Bird, who runs the Seven Oaks Hotel in Regina, has been vocal about calling for changes to the minimum age.

“Kids for years and years all across Canada and North America at 12 years of age were doing adult work on a farm so there’s no reason that kids who choose to can’t work now. I think that’s a good idea,” Bird told CTV News last month.

John Yeo, the chair of the Minimum Wage Board, said employers have complained to the board about the laws, but said it was the fact that the laws haven’t been examined in nearly 25 years that sparked the board’s review.

“We haven’t got a real feel for what the consensus may be at this time,” he said. “For us, it’s really important that we get that input so we can understand what people are thinking.”

Because the laws only pertain to a narrow group of industries, Yeo said he expects some people will call to expand the laws to cover all industries, and to expand the time frame for drives home earlier in the evening, while others will say it’s unfair and should be scrapped.

The board is accepting submissions from employers, employees, parents and young people until May 1. While the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce hadn’t surveyed its more than 10,000 members by press time, executive director MaryAnn McFadyen said she expects the majority of them to agree that young people should be allowed to work in the five restricted sectors.

Saskatchewan has been facing a labour crunch and employers are looking for ways to fill vacancies. Fourteen and 15-year-olds might just fill the need, especially in the service sector, said McFadyen.

But not all employers will rush to hire these younger students, she said, because they won’t want to invest a lot of training in people whose school obligations prevent them from working a lot of hours.

Also, employers won’t, or shouldn’t, interfere with educating these young workers so they can become more skilled and thus even more valuable to employers later.

“Education is paramount,” she said. “We need these kids to stay in school and not think now that they have money in their pocket that school takes a secondary place. That won’t be helpful to their futures nor to employers in the long run.”

But Hubrich worried that employers will want to be able to hire younger workers because they can pay them less than adults and they’re less likely to complain.

“They don’t know their rights, they don’t assert their rights and they don’t challenge their employer because they’re convinced that their employer knows best and will always look out for their best interests,” said Hubrich.

This lack of awareness cost Corinne and Doug De Patie their son, Grant. When a 17-year-old took off without paying for his gas, Grant, who was working alone, chased after him and ended up being dragged to his death under the car.

“There was a panic-alarm button at the gas station, but he wasn’t trained in using it so he didn’t see the need,” said Doug, who added that it was the employer’s responsibility to train Grant and ensure he knew recovering stolen money wasn’t part of his job.

WorkSafeBC, British Columbia’s workers’ compensation board, requires that all 24-hour businesses have a plan in place for late-shift workers working on their own, but a B.C. Federation of Labour survey of 12 gas stations in the Vancouver area found just one did.

Employers self-policing isn’t working and WorkSafeBC should do random checks of gas stations and convenience stores late at night to check out the danger, just as they do at construction sites, said Grant’s mother Corinne.

The same kind of legislative defiance happens in Saskatchewan as well, said Hubrich. While he wants the laws to apply to all sectors, it won’t help if employers ignore the law.

“They should be enforcing the existing legislation,” said Hubrich. “They should do some workplace audits and issue some citations.”

Currently Saskatchewan employers at gas stations and convenience stores aren’t required to ensure their employees get home safely late at night. However, if the board doesn’t expand the laws to include all industries, not only is it leaving a large group of workers vulnerable to violence, it also runs the risk of being accused of discrimination, said Emile Therien, president of the Ottawa-based Canada Safety Council.

After 18-year-old Teague was killed in Ottawa, the council came out very strongly in favour of legislation requiring all employers to get all employees home safely late at night.

“It’s preventive medicine and it’s not too costly,” said Therien, especially considering the alternative.

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