Lisa Beech: Our working children deserve better

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A proposed law to improve the lot of our youngest and most vulnerable workers deserves support.

Te Tai Tonga MP Rino Tirikatene.  Photo / Supplied
Te Tai Tonga MP Rino Tirikatene. Photo / Supplied

Parliament will this week debate whether working children aged 16 or younger should be regarded as employees rather than contractors, when Te Tai Tonga MP Rino Tirikatene's private member's bill is introduced on Wednesday.

Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, the Catholic agency for justice, peace and development, strongly supports Mr Tirikatene's Employment Relations (Protection of Young Workers) Amendment Bill.

In 2006, we interviewed 30 children aged 10-16 who delivered newspapers and advertising leaflets. Most made positive comments about their work, including enjoying the exercise, meeting people and earning money.

However, they also had concerns. Some had experienced unilateral cuts in their pay rates; others didn't even know what their pay rates were as that section of their contract had been left blank. Some had to find their own replacements if they were sick or had a work accident.

Most were left to supply their own equipment, and sort out their own tax and ACC payments. Despite experiencing injuries ranging from near-miss road accidents to dog bites, they had to take care of their own health and safety. Some did not know the name of the person or company they worked for, and in one case had never met their supervisor.

By contrast, a small group of children in our study enjoyed much better working conditions than the others. They had stable, clearly explained pay rates and regular pay days. They received bike and clothing allowances, as well as sick leave and holiday pay.

Comprehensive information was given on health and safety. There were checks that bike helmets were worn and regular bike inspections. In contrast to other working children, all in this group knew their supervisor by name.

The difference between the two groups was that the first were self-employed contractors, the second were employees. Perhaps at first glance this might seem only a technical distinction. But in practice this led to very different employer responsibility for working children, and especially for their safety.

Employing children as contractors absolved delivery companies of legal obligations for health and safety. Children working as employees not only had better protection in these areas, they also had their tax and ACC matters taken care of.

Of concern to us was that many of the children working as contractors were in turn sub-contracting younger siblings to do their work - over half of those children in our study involved younger brothers and sisters in their work.

While some worked under parental supervision, others did not. One 12-year-old had sole supervision of his 8-year-old brother and 6-year-old sister while undertaking delivery work on the road.

By contrast, the directly employed children were expected to do their rounds themselves, or had sick leave cover provided from the wider pool of employed children.

Treating children as contractors rather than employees seemed to us to be drawing very young children into work activities, but also we were concerned that this occurred most often in the work situations where the least attention was given to health and safety.

We learned subsequently that the year after the release of our 2007 Delivering the Goods report, a 6-year-old girl died on the roads while accompanying her 12-year-old brother on his delivery round.

During our past 10 years of learning about children's work in New Zealand, Caritas has often heard from New Zealand parents who value their childhood memories of part-time work and wish their children to gain work habits from paid employment. However, many are deeply unhappy about aspects of their children's work conditions and feel powerless to improve them.

In recent years, there have been a number of studies into New Zealand children's work. Our own work strongly supports Rino Tirikatene's bill: Caritas believes the single step which would deliver most protection to child workers would be to require direct employment relationships.

Children are the most vulnerable of workers and deserve safe and secure working conditions. We have written to all political parties asking them to support this bill to Select Committee so it can be discussed by politicians, employers, academics, unions, community practitioners and above all, by working children and their parents.

Lisa Beech is the research and advocacy co-ordinator for Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand.

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