This article reviews the law as regards to employment by children, also known as minors or those under the age of majority. Reference is made to the laws of certain provinces, just to serve as examples. If you don't live in a province mentioned, check your local laws for the similar law in your province, mostly all available at CanLII (www.canlii.org). Under -age employees should also read Employment Law: A Beginner's Guide.

In Canada, there are occasional worker shortages. In these cyclical economic conditions, employers take the increased risk of hiring under-age employees: risk because their maturity levels are suspect in regards to arranging their personal lives to accommodate the demands and responsibilities of employment. There is a reason why the full weight of the law is not borne upon the backs of children.

Minimum Age

Almost every government in the world has set minimum ages at which a person may be subject to an employment contract. There is no Canada-wide age of majority either. For example, as of 2009, a person reaches the age of majority (and at that time loses many special rights afforded only to minors - see Contracts With Children) at 19 in British Columbia, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia but at 18 in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

In the law, the special status of children is reflected in the many names reserved for them: minors, infants, child or a person under the age of majority.

child labour circa 1900For example, as of 2009, the government of British Columbia, at section 9 of a provincial law called Employment Standards Act, says this:

"A person must not employ a child under 15 years of age unless the person has obtained the written consent of the child's parent or guardian. A person must not employ a child under 12 years of age without the director's permission (and) on permitting the employment of a child under 12 years of age, the director may set the conditions of employment for the child...."

The director is a senior government worker.

Similarly, in Alberta, the Employment Standards Code, at section 65(2) says:

"No individual under 15 years old may be employed without the written consent of the individual’s parent or guardian and the approval of the Director...."

Laws can change suddenly so always check the law or ask a lawyer if you have a real, live situation but as of September 2009, the date this was written, Ontario had no general minimum age but does limit the age for certain high-risk jobs such as construction (16), underground mine working (18) or window cleaning (18).

Quebec has a different approach setting out, at sections 84.2 and 84.3 of the Quebec law called An Act Respecting Labour Standards:

"No employer may have work performed by a child that is disproportionate to the child's capacity, or that is likely to be detrimental to the child's education, health or physical or moral development.

"No employer may have work performed by a child under the age of 14 years without first obtaining the written consent of the holder of parental authority or the tutor."

School Laws

Provincial school laws significantly affect the employment of children.

Employers are required to abide by the law and therefore, have to work around school attendance requirements such as section 21 of the Ontario Education Act:

"... every person who attains the age of six years on or before the first school day in September in any year shall attend an elementary or secondary school on every school day from the first school day in September in that year until the person attains the age of 18 years."

In British Columbia, the law is worded differently (section 3(1)(b) of the School Act):

"A person who is resident in British Columbia must ... participate in an educational program ... until he or she reaches the age of 16 years."

Voidable Contracts

The law recognizes the vulnerability of a child-adult negotiation and gives children some protection against impetuous contracts (see Contracts With Children).

With children, contracts can be voided at their request if they are not beneficial to the child. One exception exists and that is a contract for necessaries of life.

The rule was stated in a 1925 case, Miller v. Smith & Co., in which the judge said an "infant may bind himself to pay for his necessary meat, drink, clothing, medicines and likewise for his teaching or instruction."

Remember also that if a minor ratifies a contract upon reaching the age of majority, he or she is then bound to it.

Another case was Roberts v Gray of 1912 in which the rule of contract law which allows a child to void ill-advised contracts except if for "the necessaries of life" is not as useful in employment contracts as it seems at first blush.

In this case, the judge said that:

"... when you get a contract for labour, and you have a remuneration of wages, that contract, I think, must be taken as prima facie binding upon an infant."

Other Issues

Some of the other basic principles of law essential for employees that are not yet of the age of majority:

  • Every employment relationship is necessarily a contract.
  • Not all contracts are set in writing. Children often think that a contract must be something in writing. In fact, the law requires that only special contracts have to be in writing. One in regards to the sale of land: that has to be in writing.
  • But for children, upon entering the workforce, it is imperative that they realize that a contract is, more often than not, simply verbal or, as lawyers call it, oral. It is no less enforceable by the courts although it may be a challenge to figure out what the child and the employer agreed if they disagree on that. For this reason, most employers will write up an employment contract.
  • A written employment contract is rarely presented to a child as a single, all-included document. Usually, there will; be several "papers" to sign; some to do with waivers and releases, benefits and hours of work, probationary period(s), tax information, bank deposits and the like - but all forming, taken together, the contract of employment.
  • The liability of the child and of their parents, in certain cases, or the liability of the employer, for a child's negligence which causes damage to another person or someone else's property while on the job, is a complicated area of the law, known as vicarious liability but an aspect that the child ought to at least have a basic concept.
  • Every child that earns an income must pay income tax on their income, which is usually done for them by the employer who roughs out the amount on every paycheck and sends it directly to the Government, who then holds it in an account in the child's name. Every year, because becoming an employee means that they are also now tax-payers, the child must also fill-in and submit to the Canadian government and, in some cases, also to the provincial governments, a tax return that declares their income and what they have paid. The government compares the amounts on the return with the amounts submitted by the employer and then send the child a notice of assessment, usually agreeing that all is in order. But maybe not and although it is rare given that they usually don't earn that much, an under-age employees may come face-to-face with the taxman - a scary prospect for an adult.
  • If you earn more than a set amount (for example, $3,500) in a calendar year, the government creates a pension account for you, called Canada Pension Plan, and puts into that account a small amount of money taken from your paycheck.

Children benefit from the full extent of the law, especially provincial employment standards laws which sets out minimum legal requirements for employers such as working hours, overtime, meal breaks and dismissal. Employment standards in British Columbia and employment standards in Ontario serve as examples of the basic employee rights enjoyed by all eligible employees - not just children. The dismissal of a child employee is not subject to any special rules but falls under the general law of dismissals in Canada.

This summary cannot possibly, without occupying 1,000 web pages, cover the full breadth of laws as they might relate to the employment of children. For example, family law might affect a child, especially if their employment is a matter of contention between two separated parents. A child who lives with a parent receiving child support may find that the paying parent wants to reduce child support by whatever amount the child is earning. This tug-of-war can be very difficult for a child who seeks a bit more cash in their jean pockets without less food on the table.

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