Red Alert

Child workers in NZ – what to do?

Posted by on May 29th, 2010

Earlier this week, along with Moana Mackey and Carol Beaumont, I attended a Youth Forum in Gisborne organised by Young Labour, the NZCTU and local unions.

It was a wake-up call for those who were there to listen to the 40 or so young people – almost all of them still at school – talk about the issues facing them as they take on work. One young woman talked about how she thought her employer would go ballistic if she asked for a written employment agreement, even although the law says she is supposed to have one.   Most of the young workers there didn’t have much of an idea about what they could expect from their employer and what their employer could expect from them.  All were being paid less than minimum wage – because for workers under 16, there is no such thing.

I spent a bit of time talking to one young woman who delivers for the local newspaper. Her story was no different to the many thousands of other young people who are taken on as leaflet or newspaper deliverers, told they are independent contractors, and end up being paid a pittance.

NZ has a  tradition of school-kids working for spare money and I’m sure many of did so in our youth.  These days, Kiwi kids work on farms, in convenience stores, in fast food restaurants and retail outlets, and on the streets delivering advertising and newspapers. Kids are often eager to earn the money to buy extras.  In some cases, their families need them to work to supplement family income to help make ends meet.

But children’s work in in NZ is very loosely regulated, and is out of step with the other first-world countries.  There is no minimum age for employment in New Zealand. Our labour legislation defines an employee as “any person of any age”.  But more concerning than that, there is no minimum age for a self-employed person or anyone else who performs work under independent or dependent contracts. In other words, a child can enter into an agreement as an independent contractor, where they have to pay their own ACC, GST and other tax, and where they are expected to understand their rights under commercial law.

The hours of work of young people tends to be much more closely regulated overseas, while NZ only has a  general guideline that work hours should not be such that they endanger health & safety, and in the case of young people 15 and under, the hours should not interfere with school attendance.

Health and Safety legislation applies to young people working as employees under the Employment Relations Act, where generally kids under 15 should not undertake hazardous work and shouldn’t be employed between 10pm and 6am. But these rules don’t apply to kids working as contractors, such as newspaper and leaflet deliverers.

Statistics tell us that one child each year dies from a workplace accident and several hundred are seriously injured, and the working hours of many interfere with their educational progress.

Then there’s the National Government’s 90 day trial period and the obligation-free work of employers who employ children as contractors.

We need to discuss these questions :

  • Should there be a minimum age of employment?
  • Should there be minimum wage and standards for young people working?
  • Should kids under 16 be able to be employed as contractors, without employment rights?

I’m assuming that no-one would want to regulate babysitting arrangements, lawn-mowing and odd jobs, but when our kids get into the corporate world, shouldn’t there be better standards?

20 Responses to “Child workers in NZ – what to do?”

  1. Spud says:

    90 days Grrrrrr 👿
    I started my first job at 14. Not sure what a minimum age should be but no one should be hired without having their rights recognised and understanding all the conditions of their employment.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Excellent post Darien however, I bet it gains little traction as children are the least valued citizens in our country.

    I think that where children are entering the corporate workplace all due care should be taken to ensure that they are treated appropriately.

    Minimum wage – perhaps. Probably no more than $5-8 p/h as kids, well $5 should be a lot of money!

    I would be more concerned about things like the maximum number of hours (per day & per week), specified breaks etc seeing as they are young & still growing etc (don’t want them standing/sitting still for too long etc).

    Holidays etc, if working full-time then yes.

    And all children should be given suitable notice re change in conditions or end of employment.

  3. Pedrovsky says:

    Yeah Darien you made the local paper in Gisborne as part of youth week. I am curious as to whether the part where you were quoted as saying “when I was young we went on strike and did wicked stuff like hold the country to ransom” Is that wicked as in evil and you regret it? or wicked as in edgy/hip/funky/retro??

  4. Draco T Bastard says:

    Most of the young workers there didn’t have much of an idea about what they could expect from their employer and what their employer could expect from them.

    This has been true for decades and it has, IMO, been a major benefit to employers simply because the young couldn’t question what the employers were telling them from a position of knowledge. It’s problem that needs to be addressed and that probably means another class in school. There’d be no point in relying on the parents because a lot of them don’t know either (which means that the parents need to be educated as well).

    In some cases, their families need them to work to supplement family income to help make ends meet.

    Which is societal failure – no household should be so poor that they need to send their young to work to have enough to live.

    In other words, a child can enter into an agreement as an independent contractor, where they have to pay their own ACC, GST and other tax,

    Uh huh, and who’s going to teach them to do the books? (see first paragraph)?

    Minimum age should be either 13 or 14 and the minimum wage should apply.

  5. Dorothy says:

    excellent post – this is scandalous. Every child should learn about employment rights (and consumer rights) in a civics class at school

  6. Patrick Baron says:

    Thanks for raising this matter Darien. The lack of protection for minors under current industrial law is nothing short of scandalous. While there has been definite progress with race relations and societal development over the past 25 years,the rush to create a business friendly economic environment during this time has clearly set matters back pertaining to employment relations; sanctioning opportunity for exploitation and social injustice of vunerable members of our society. I agree that work needs to undertaken on the employment regulatory front to address this matter. However any protections provided could still be defeated by via the “independent contractor” loophole. So additional work will also need to be done in this area – by in the first instance clearly defining when someone can claim to operate as an “independent contractor”.

  7. Falafulu Fisi says:

    Darien, local economist Dr Eric Crampton has some useful blog posts that would be of interesting reading for you.

    Minimum Wages

    If you wish, then there are more (economics peer reviewed) research papers on the topic of minimum wages from Prof David Neumark website, just click on the link for Research there.

    As a policy-maker such as yourself, you should be well informed because policies should be based on facts (let the data speaks for itself) rather than based on twisted ideology that’s not supported by facts.

  8. Jeremy says:

    @ Draco – Hit the nail on the head. My daughter (3yo) is with a talent agency (modeling/acting). My parents are venomous about abusing the child for monetary gain, but she enjoys it (dress up + attention). I have (and the agency knows & encourages) taken all the contract/employment issues, and keep a good eye on both rights & her desires. Parents of child workers need to take more responsibility, and have the education (advice) themselves. The same could be said for the 14 yo internet entrepreneur.
    @ Darien – babysitting I would assume would be exempt from all law as a cash (like perk) job that no-one (IRD,DOL) knows about, but your right, there should be a test for rights to start (perhaps friends/family exempted, time period)

    How bout this
    0-12. Children can work with parents consent. Written contract provided, signed by parent/child and DOL inspector? If not done child is entitled to full rights and can backdate claims for min wage.
    @Rebecca – I also can see that some child jobs wont get done as fast as needed (some will eg model – money comes in just the same). I would have a preference for pay per unit of production (not contractor with employment rights), where this is appropriate, as this teaches the child to work.
    Hours not to interfere with school (home by dark time)

    13-15 (school leaving age) – Parents & Dol signature required. Again prefer contract pay but can take on contractor/self employed role/responsibility.
    Children as employers need legal advice.
    Hours, must stay in school. After Dark employers responsible for transport.

    15+ Minimum wage/rights. Dol sign off. Punishment for employers who do not forward a contract.

    There is also the issue of family business, takeaway and farms (just a guess that most of the deaths could be farm accidents?). Are these children entitled to pay/rights or are they volunteer workers for the betterment of the family unit? OSH rights obviously but I have no answer for working for parents.
    Another one to consider is work experience (free or not provided) and apprenticeships.

  9. The Gnat Exterminator says:

    One of the things Labour did while in office that really grated with me was the introduction of the minimum wage for disabled people in sheltered workshops. What has happened at the one I was involved with as an occasional volunteer is the workers who were doing productive work lost their weekly payments (about $30-$80, on top of their invalids benefit) as they couldn’t ‘work’ anymore.

    The workshop formed a ‘social club’ and now everyone is rewarded with movie days, weeklong trips away, or having parties on the weekend.

    Of course, the workers who were capable of earning quickly learnt that they were being ripped off by this arrangement and stopped going. Now everyone is worse off.

    Anyway, the point is if you make the minimum wage compulsory for underage workers, then you will drive away the oppurtunities for them, just as happened in my example above.

  10. Tracey says:

    Correct me if I am wrong but in almost all circumstances a contract with a minor cannot be enforced. A minor can enforce it but not the adult. Is there an exception under the Employment Relations Act under child employment, and I’m with Rebecca, what’s the justification? That as children they need LESS legal safeguards not more?

  11. Darien Fenton says:

    @Pedrovsky – I was being ironic – reflecting on the stupid things people say.
    @Falafulu Fisi – I might have been more encouraged to read those right wing links if you hadn’t added the last bit about “twisted ideology”. I could give you as much research that argues the other way.
    @Tracey -Yes, but under the Minors Contract Act, certain contracts are excluded, such as employment contracts. Secondly, a Court may enforce the contract against the minor in whole or in part if it concludes that the contract was fair and reasonable in all the circumstances.
    @Rebecca, Jeremy, Patrick – appreciate the considered responses.
    @The Gnat Exterminator – that didn’t need to happen. The workshop could have sought exemptions under the act. If the others are capable of earning, and doing the work to standard, why shouldn’t they be entitled to the minimum wage?

  12. @Darien: Yup, any of the academic economists that disagree with you are automatically “right wing links”, regardless of how many posts they’ve put up arguing for drug legalization or lauding Labour’s civil unions bill and legalization of prostitution.

    Y’all are going to have to spend a bit more time in the woodshed before ready for office again, methinks.

  13. John W says:

    “Which is societal failure – no household should be so poor that they need to send their young to work to have enough to live.”

    If the answer is to blame a wide condition then look at equity distribution and see there is no way some families will not be in financial strife and hungry let alone keep up with all the pressures of paying Illegal school fees and keeping clothes and shoes in repair.

    The haves are very good at stating what the have nots should do and pouring scorn on the section of the population that have little accument to compete.

    Kids have always worked and often for little. That is not a bad thing in itself. The social conditions that force kids to work are highly unsatisfactory and changing the equity balance has to be a part of addressing the societal breakdown.

    Some people earn money – a large amount of money is taken by systematic manipulation to accumulate massive wealth.

    A society is judged by haw it treats its humblest members.

    The attitude children experience when working is a powerful shaping force as to how they aspire to take part as contributing members of society.

  14. Tracey says:

    I’m afraid I am going to agree with gnat, my brother-in-law worked in what we used to call a sheltered workshop… at minimum wage the organisation was not viable and could not keep everyone on. My b-i-law for example, was more than happy and supported at home (and then in residential care) with his $20 per week cash in his brown envelope, while his benefit went directly to offest his living expenses.

    Intellectually disabled people get depressed being out of work too

  15. Tracey says:

    In times of unemployment we have to be cognisant, dont we, that a job for a minor could be a minimum wage job for someone else? Thispolicy also accounts for prisons not tendering for the type of work that can be done “outside” because they can immediately undercut competitors on wages alone?

  16. Dylan says:

    I’ve been paid under the table when I was younger for less than the minimum wage but probably ended up with more than if I was on the MW being taxed which was pretty sweet.

    EXCEPT when I had a paper run for a very short amount of time coz I quit it. The pay was ridiculous it was a 3ish hour long route 3 times a week for $14 a week.

  17. The Gnat Exterminator says:

    Darien – it was the easiest way for the workshop to deal with the new law as they did not want to risk having to fundraise to pay for the workers (or worse, let them go). In the end they are worse off because of the law.

    I know there were real problems with exploitation in the sector, but the way it was addressed was not the right answer.

  18. Drakula says:

    Child Labour relations today is beginning to read like ‘The Working Day’that was observed in the 1880’s by a very famous author I’m sure you would all know.

    Another area in which young workers are being attacked by National are those on benefits wanting to improve their situation by part time sclooling.

    I have been observing the Paula Bennett vs. Ms. Fuller for some time on Frogblog. Did Mrs Bennett have the right to post Ms. Fullers private benefit details on the web?

    I would like to know Red Alerts position on this! This could affect school leavers as well.

  19. pdm says:

    `These days kiwi kids work on farms’

    Boy you are off the pace. From when I was about 10 I in the mid 1950’s I helped with feeding out, docking, drafting sheep filling night sheds etc and helped on lambing beats. When I was 15 I managed the next door neighbours farm for 3 days while he went to a conference. I had to milk the family cow, feed out, do a lambing beat, get posts and wire to fencers and also finish ploughing a paddock.

    I was lucky, some kids I caught the school bus with had to do a lambing beat before laving for school and one when they got home from school. I just had to milk the cow some nights.

    What is more we all loved doing it.

  20. shiloh owens says:

    can i get a part time job if i am only 15 yr’s old, over the summer Holiday