The Vulnerability of Young Workers

Many employees feel they are exploited by employers. However, more experienced workers are less inclined than young workers to tolerate mistreatment by employers. They tend to act on their options, which range from raising a complaint with the boss, to quitting, to filing a complaint with the appropriate government ministry.

Youth workers entering the work force are generally less savvy about their rights under employment standards and health and safety laws. That leaves them more vulnerable to the whims of employers who choose to ignore some aspects of employment laws and regulations.

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Canada’s labour force consists of more than one million young people between the ages of 15 and 19, the majority attending school and working part-time in the retail and service sectors. Many of them will encounter the same kinds of workplace issues.

Typically, teen workers are exploited by employers who don’t provide legally required breaks, fail to pay for training time or make improper deductions from paycheques.

A broader issue is intimidation by employers of young workers. Throughout my experiences in the labour force, there were many times when I felt exploited.

For example, while working at a grocery store, I didn’t have to punch out for breaks. However, my manager routinely forgot to give them to me. In another job, while working as a waitress, I was forced to pay out two per cent of my gratuities to the owners, ostensibly to cover “breakage” costs. As a newcomer to the staff of a bar, I worked four shifts my first week of employment. When pay day came, I noticed that I was shorted hours and informed the boss. I was told that I wouldn’t be paid for training time.

“Young workers are among the most vulnerable in the job market,” says Sandra Clifford of the Ontario Federation of Labour’s Youth Committee. “Employers tend to exploit their lack of knowledge about their rights and their fear of getting fired if they ‘make trouble.”

Among the things that young workers should know:

  • The Employment Standards Act of Ontario requires employers to provide a 30-minute unpaid break after five hours of work. However, employers are not required to provide so-called coffee or smoking breaks, which exist in most workplaces as a matter of custom or are required by collective agreements.
  • The ESA also requires that employees be paid for training hours, which are considered time worked.
  • Employers cannot make deductions from an employee’s paycheque for such things as breakage or uniforms without a written consent from the employee.

Aside from a lack of knowledge of their basic employment rights and entitlements, another key problem is that young workers don’t lodge complaints with the Employment Standards Branch of the Ministry of Labour.

Many feel it isn’t worth their time, or that nothing will change, or that they might get fired for rocking the boat. They should know that government officers will investigate complaints and are empowered to issue orders when employers are found to be in breach of the law.

“Many young people respond better to a quick fix,” says Christa Alexander, an employment counsellor at Kingston Employment and Youth Services. “Going through the MOL is a lengthy process.” KEYS is a free employment service helping young people in developing job skills, finding job openings and resume writing.

So why is it that some employers take advantage of their young workers?

Part of the reason is simply supply and demand. For many employers, young people are a disposable and readily replaceable commodity. Most teen workers have the same education, the same amount job experience and the same need for a job.

“Employers tend to hire youth because they only have to pay them minimum wage and they are usually part-time,” Alexander says. “They can also replace them easily, which is why it is so important for young people to develop their skills and get extra qualifications to put them a step above the rest.”

She urges new entrants to the work force to educate themselves about their rights and their options in the workplace.

“In order to prevent altercations, youth should know their rights before starting work,” Alexander says. “Researching the ESA and discussing their rights with their employer are ways to help ensure they don’t take place.”

Education about the workplace “should be a community effort,” she says. “They should be informed at school, at home, by their employers – and if they still aren’t clear, they could go to an employment services agency and ask there.”

Her advice for young people who think they are being exploited at work “Discuss it with the employer. Maybe they aren’t aware of what is going on. If that doesn’t work, and you feel strongly enough about your case, the next step is filing a formal complaint with the Ministry of Labour.”

If it comes to that, the first step is to contact an officer in the Employment Standards Branch. The officer will assess the complaint and offer an opinion as to whether it is worth pursuing. The officers cannot deny a complaint from being filed. Once the worker has filed a complaint, the officer takes it up with the employer, who is given an opportunity to respond.

After assessing the complaint and the response, the officer may conclude that the employee is owed money and will issue an order to the employer to pay by a certain date.

Complaints involving intimidation or harassment are not within the purview of the Employment Standards Branch. Young workers should take these issues to a legal aid lawyer or, if appropriate, the Human Rights Commission.

Teen and youth workers owe it to themselves to become knowledgeable of their rights and entitlements under employment and labour laws. A good place to start is the ministry website at:

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