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Teenage Work: Its Precarious and Gendered Nature

Le travail des adolescents : sa nature précaire et sexospécifique
Marjorie Griffin Cohen


Cet article analyse les changements dans le travail des adolescents au fil du temps au Canada et les met en relation avec l'évolution néolibérale de la politique. Cet accent sur le travail des adolescents a donc été motivé par la détérioration des politiques publiques de protection sociale offertes à tous les travailleurs, mais surtout aux plus jeunes, pendant les grands changements en sens néolibérale qu’ont eu lieu au 21ème siècle.
La méthodologie de cet étude repose sur100 entrevues faites avec des étudiants adolescents dans la région de Vancouver (50 garçons et 50 filles) afin de saisir comment ils comprennent et perçoivent leur travail.
Cet article s’appuie aussi sur des statistiques de la population active afin de documenter les changements des modèles et de l'intensité du travail au fil du temps chez les adolescentes au Canada. Il met l'accent sur les différences de genre dans le travail chez les adolescents, les évolutions du travail adolescent. Il souligne que la rétribution pour ce travail s’est détériorée au fil du temps, et indique que les politiques publiques adoptent une perspective limitée pour traiter la question des nouvelles arrivées sur le marché du travail.

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  • 1  Katherine DuPre Lumpkin and Dorothy Wolff Douglas, Child Workers in America, 1937, quoted in Ellen (...)

“[They go to work] with no plan and no training; their jobs usually anything they can get, having nothing to do with their interests and their capacities, only with business demand…What would the average middle-class parent say to such an ‘educational’ program for his adolescent boys and girls?”1


1When Katherine DuPre Lumpkin and Dorothy Wolff Douglas (authors of the above quote) wrote about teenage work in the U.S. during the Great Depression of the 1930s, they were writing about teenage workers from poor and working class families. Work was their education and not something middle-class families would tolerate for their own children because it was bad work and, as a result, an exceedingly poor ‘education.’ Over the years the nature and conditions of work changed and work for teenagers of all classes is now encouraged, in large part because it is supposed to prepare them for the work world by teaching them skills they cannot obtain in classrooms. This preparation includes time management, cooperation with co-workers, acquiring occupation specific skills, learning how to carry out the instructions of management, acquiring useful references, and learning how to manage a certain degree of financial independence. (Frone 1999)

2All of these positive aspects of teenage work presume reasonably good work: workplaces and employers that are respectful of teenagers, spend time in their instruction, allow them to develop a skill set, are concerned with their safety, pay them decently, keep working hours limited, provide some intellectual or social stimulation during the working process, and treat workers fairly. Governments, schools and parents are all part of a process that buys into the notion of teenage work as a good thing. (Greenberger & Steinberg, xiii). In many jurisdictions in Canada work experience is a requirement for graduation. Both parents and students appear to have accepted the program, and while teenagers frequently complain about their work, they do appear to want work and many absolutely need the money. But many choose to work because they too believe this will give them the ‘experience’ future employers or post-secondary institutions will demand. For teenagers themselves, parents, educators and public policy makers, the widespread assumption appears to be that the conditions of work, while frequently not what they should be, are just one of those things teenagers should and can tolerate because the work they are doing is unskilled and temporary.

3This study assess the working conditions of teenagers in the Vancouver area of BC. The study was prompted by the deterioration in the public policy protections afforded all workers, but particularly those of the youngest, during the neo-liberal shift in labour protections in BC in the early 21st century and the increased need for students to work to finance their education. (Cohen and Klein 2011) Through interviews with teenagers it became clear that teenage work can sometimes be all that it is supposed to be, but the positive nature of this work experience was less prevalent than the negative. The young workers themselves often accept their experience as ‘normal,’ even when it violates the legal requirements for their work.

4Two main themes emerge from this study: one relates to the highly precarious nature of work for teenagers and the other relates to the gendered nature of teenage work. In some respects neither of these issues is particularly surprising because of the familiarity with both the increased precariousness of work for workers in general in the 21st century and the well documented over-all gendered nature of the workforce. (Vosko 2006, Lahey 2005) What is different in this study is the recognition of the intensity of both the gendered and precarious nature of teenage work and the way that this establishes patterns that continue as workers mature.

5Underscoring the significance of gender differences counters some generally held beliefs about the relative similarity of the work of teenage males and females. Because of the fairly low skill levels of much teenage work and the similarity of entry-level wages, it is usually noted that young entrants to the labour force have work experiences that tend to be more homogeneous than that experienced by adult workers. (Crompton and Sanderson 1990 (162); Bauder 2001). This study will show that while this is true, in comparison with older workers, teenage work has considerable variations, particularly by gender, even within specific industrial and occupational categories. So while young males and females may both work at fast food outlets, for example, their specific jobs and experiences are not the same and their experiences of precariousness in their jobs are different. There are also significant variations in the experience of teenage and adult workers with regard to labour protections, which adds to the precariousness of teenage workers’ jobs. The failure to account for teenage workers’ level of experiences and their vulnerability in the design of labour protections make teenagers specifically vulnerable workers and teenage work to be among the most precarious of all kinds of work.

6In pointing out the gendered nature of the work experiences of teenagers, this paper does not argue that either males or females have an overall advantage or disadvantage. The point will be to show that the gendered distinctions that become so apparent in later work experiences are present even when workers are not as separated by wage differences as occurs as workers mature. These gendered distinctions relate to issues such as participation rates, hours of work, distribution by industry and occupation, and the ways that precarious work is experienced.

Study Methodologies

7The resources for this paper rely on government statistics and documents, published material, and interviews with teenagers. The in-depth interviews focused on issues related to the gendered differences in youth labour experiences, the conditions of teenage work in BC, and the extent that students understand their workplace rights. Each teenager in the study undertook a written questionnaire and participated in either an individual interview or a group discussion. Group discussions focused on experiences such as gender differences in task selection and general treatment on the job, perceptions and knowledge of employment standards, perceptions of ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ experiences while at work, experiences of workplace cultures, and the various ways that the lives of young people are affected by work.

  • 2  The two small two-person interviews and the seven individual interviews were undertaken out of nec (...)

8Recruitment for this study was undertaken through non-profit community youth groups and through colleges and universities. One hundred students between 15 and 19 years old who were doing paid work and going to school, college or university were interviewed in groups of 2-12 people, with seven interviewed individually.2 An information sheet about basic employment rights in BC was presented before the interviews. One-half of the participants were going to high school and one-half were in college or university. Also, one-half of the participants were male and one-half were female. The final usable sample was 97 participants. Of these the following were the numbers for each age group: 15 years (11), 16 years (8), 17 years (20), 18 years (20), 19 years (38).

9The demographics of the participants reflect the diverse nature of the Vancouver area population. 35% of the participants were not born in Canada and 52% had both parents born in places other than Canada. About one-half of the participants self-identified as Asian or South Asian (immigrants or from immigrant families); 27% of European background; 11% of mixed origins; 7% were of Aboriginal/Metis origin; 4% of Central/Latin American origin. 55% of the participants have English as a first language, 17% have Cantonese as a first language and 6% reported Tagalog as their first language. Other language groups of the participants were Mandarin, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Korean.

10The qualitative data in this study attempts to uncover the experiences of teenagers in the workplace in a specific area. It is not an attempt to generalize this experience, but to offer insights into the variations in the types of jobs teenagers hold, what teenagers expect from their experiences, and how they understand their workplace experiences and rights.  This is the kind of information that cannot be gleaned from the formal statistics on teenage employment, but compliments the broader picture that the statistical data provides for the gendered dimensions of occupational and industrial distribution, and workplace injuries.

11Teenage work is rarely treated as a specific category when labour issues are analyzed in Canada. It is categorized with ‘youth’ labour in statistic collections and analysis, a category that covers those in the 15-24 age group.  These workers are normally treated as a homogeneous category, yet substantial differences exist in the work experience of someone who is 15 from someone who is 24. In this study a general overview of teenage work in Canada will be given, but the primary focus for the interviews was to understand the conditions of teenage workers who are still in an educational institution. This is because of the rise in expectations that teenage students will work and the increased time they are spending in the paid labour force.  

Part I: Changes Affecting Teenage Work

Public Policy Changes

12Public policy changes associated with providing a more ‘flexible’ workforce is one of the more prominent features of economic and social shifts associated with globalization. The work regime changes that have occurred in BC and Alberta are among the most harsh in Canada for young workers, but they are unique in neither their direction nor their durability.

  • 3  It now requires only the consent of one parent. Similar legislation was introduced in Alberta in 2 (...)
  • 4  The point of the government oversight was to ensure that the child’s academic standing would not b (...)

13In British Columbia a Liberal government was elected in 2001 and immediately began a series of initiatives to ensure that the rules under which workers are hired, work, and fired became more ‘flexible.’ Included in these sweeping changes were measures that targeted the youngest workers. Two of these changes were especially disquieting. For the first time in living memory the state officially sanctioned expanded child work and reductions in regulations affecting their work. Children in BC between the ages of 12 and 14 are now able to work without approval of the government.3 Before this change children of this age were, under special circumstances, allowed to work, but government oversight was required: they could not work unless the Director of Employment Standards granted a specific permit.4 The deregulation of labour meant that teenagers, and even children as young as 12 years could be employed for up to four hours on a school day to a maximum of 20 hours a week, and during non-school periods for up to seven hours a day to 35 hours a week. There also are no longer prohibitions on work that is inappropriate for children, such as selling door-to-door or using power tools. (Luke and Moore 2004, p. 13).

  • 5  This ‘training wage’ was eliminated in 2011 by the new Liberal Premiere, Christy Clark. The minimu (...)
  • 6  Both the UN and the ILO define the appropriate minimum working age as 15 in developed countries an (...)

14The second change deliberately targeting young workers was the reduction in their minimum wage. The ‘first job’ minimum wage (or the ‘training wage,’ the wage workers would receive for their first 500 hours of work) was instituted at $2.00 or 25% less than the standard minimum wage at the time.5 Both of these practices are in contravention of the International Labour Organization standards (Irwin, McBride, Strubin 2005).6

  • 7  After the study on Child and Youth Employment Standards by Irwin, McBride and Strubin was publishe (...)

15Other employment standards changes that affect all workers also appear to have a negative impact on the working conditions of teenage workers. One of the more important changes relates to budget cuts to the Employments Standards Branch that resulted in a one-third reduction in branch offices throughout the province and the elimination of routine workplace inspections. This makes enforcing even the reduced level of protections unlikely. Pursuit of complaints against employers always require stamina on the part of workers, a situation that is compounded when youth are involved. In B.C. change procedures involved shifting to a ‘self-help’ kit, rather than talking directly to a government official when filing a complaint. The result was a stunning reduction in complaints: they dropped 46% the first year the ‘self-help’ kit was in place and 61% over the following three years (Fairey 05).7

16In most Canadian jurisdictions the hours of work and overtime pay have been made more ‘flexible’ in recent years, a development that makes it easier for employers to manipulate workers’ hours of work. In B.C. the government reduced the mandatory ‘call-out’ time for a shift from four to two hours and instituted complicated ‘overtime averaging’ that permits employers to have people work 12 hour days for seven straight days. Also allowed are ‘voluntary’ agreements to forgo legal rights to overtime pay. All of these changes make teenagers more vulnerable to employers’ pressure for agreeing to unpleasant working conditions. But many young workers have no idea about the legal demands on their employers: the requirement to post Employment Standards in the workplace was also abolished.

17These are only some of the vast changes to disadvantage labour that have had particularly significant implications for teenage workers and has added to the precarious nature of their work in the 21st century.

Employment Changes and the Rise of Precarious Work

18Teenage work is precarious in many of the ways that the term ‘precarious’ is now used in relation to new features of the 21st century workforce, but it has added dimensions of precariousness because of the age, inexperience, and vulnerability of this group of workers. As labour force conditions associated with globalization changed during the 1990s new types of working conditions led an increasing proportion of the workforce to have ‘non-standard’ work. The ‘standard’ employment model, where a worker has one employer and works full-time throughout the year, was likely to provide economic security that occurred less frequently with non-standard employment (Krahn 1991, Vosko 2006). Examinations of the development of non-standard employment focuses on the ways that employment insecurity is manifested through deteriorations in working conditions, poor wages, little room for advancement, and public policy toward workers that continued to be constructed as though the ‘standard’ model of employment is the norm. The term ‘precarious’ employment is now frequently used in Canada to distinguish between different kinds of ‘non-standard’ employment, some of which do not necessarily place workers in a position of precarious employment or economic insecurity. The dimensions of precarious work usually encompass issues related to employment status, level of control at work, security of income, and regulatory effectiveness for job protections. (Vosko 2006).

19Teenage work has become associated with some of the emerging forms of precarious work associated with globalization, with work at places like McDonald’s conjuring up terms like ‘mcjobs.’ (Jackson 2005, Tannock 2001). These are jobs that are highly controlled and are characterized by involuntary flexibility, low wages, low status, low skill, and physical danger.  However despite the increasing presence of teenage workers in more precarious forms of employment, less attention has been paid to the specific nature of the precarious employment they experience. This may be because the dimensions of the changes in the pattern of adult work are so large it commands the most attention, but possibly also because teenagers remain teenagers for a fairly short time and their situation is considered temporary and transitional. As some scholars have noted, age stratifications are not permanent, as is race/ethnicity and sex. Some analysts have claimed that gender plays less of a role in determining whether teenage work is precarious or not, since the demands of unpaid work (i.e., childcare) that are disproportionately shouldered by women, emerge after teenagers become adults (Lucas, 1997; Hakim, 1996). In the view of these scholars, the significant gendered dimensions of work emerge in adulthood as women attempt to balance the increased time demands associated with care giving responsibilities with paid work.

20Normally ‘precarious’ work is related to part-time and temporary work and in this virtually all teenage work could be defined as precarious. However, in the case of teenage workers, it is not only expected but desirable that their work be part-time – at least during the school year. Also, the kind of work they perform usually does not promote a work life ideal for adult permanent workers, so the temporariness of the work is a positive aspect of the work as well. Precariousness of work for teenagers would be employment that includes economic insecurity and/or poor labour conditions. This would include work that is dangerous or adversely affects health, has poor supervision or training, is not paid regularly or well, or requires excessive hours of work or inappropriate scheduling. Work would also be considered precarious when there is the existence of harassment, discrimination, contravention of any legal work requirements, and where there are few employment supports by either a trade union or access to government protection from exploitation.

21These kinds of negative conditions are all too prevalent in many part-time and temporary jobs, but not in all of them, so it is important to make the distinctions about what is good work for teenagers and what is not. This can be done by looking at work situations where teenagers are particularly vulnerable because of their age, the kinds of work they do, and the kinds of support that they receive, either from government protection or from trade unions. Because so much of the work teenagers perform is part-time in the personal services sector, few are protected by trade unions. This means that governments’ employment policies are critical for ensuring that teenagers are not exploited.

PART II: General Characteristics of Teenage Work

22The ability of teenagers to find work is highly dependent on the state of the economy. During economic recessions their participation rate drops dramatically, but when the economy improves, it increases (Beaudry, Lemieux, Parent 2000, Lowe and Krahn, 1999). This pattern is clearly visible during the recession of the 1990s, the improvement toward the end of the decade, and the decline in the subsequent 2008 economic crisis. (Chart 1)

23The changes that have occurred with the increase in teenage work in the 21st century is notable for the rather dramatic switch in the participation rates between males and females. Before the 21st century teenage males consistently had higher participation rates than females.

24As with adult female workers, teenage females have increased their labour force participation substantially since the 1970s although unlike adult female workers, teenage females now have a rate of participation that is higher than that for males.

25In general teenaged students have a lower labour force participation rate than non-students, but it has been increasing over the past thirty years so that in 2011 43% of all teenage students were in the labour force, with female students having the highest participation rate. (Chart 2).  Unlike the general female working population, female students have had higher rates than males since the early 1990s, although the rates between males and females began diverging dramatically in the 21st century.

  • 8 This varies during the year with higher rates of participation during the summer months.
  • 9  The appropriate number of hours a teenager should work is a continuing focus of study. Most conclu (...)

26Since the late 1990s the amount of time students spend at work has increased considerably, but the size of the increase has been especially significant for females.  Both males and females decreased their work hours throughout the period from 1987 to 1997, but both have increased work hours until 2007 to those approaching the levels in the late 1970s. (Chart 3) Teenage males have consistently had higher hours of work than have females: Until the recession that began in 2008 over 45% of teenage males and about 40% of teenage females worked more than 16 hours a week.8 As was clear with previous recessions, the hours of work decreases for teenagers during these periods of labour stress.9

27In the 21st century there also appears to be a more consistent number of hours worked during the year than in earlier periods when students were more likely to spend more time at work during the summer months. There is some variation now, but the differences are relatively small compared to earlier decades. This means more students are working throughout the year than only in summer months.

Industries and Occupations

28Both young males and females in Canada are concentrated in retail trade and accommodation and food services industries. These two main categories account for a total of 47% of teenage male workers, but 62% of teenage female workers. As with the adult workforce, teenage male labour is much less concentrated by industry than is the teenage female work force.

29The past 25 years have brought about striking changes in the industries where teenagers are employed with a much higher concentration now than in the late 1980s. The major reductions in some areas reflect structural shifts in the economy that are reflected in the overall decline in the proportion of workers in agricultural, primary and secondary industries and an increase in service-sectors jobs. For teenage males the shifts were primarily represented by a decline in work in agriculture, primary industries, transportation and warehousing, public administration, and manufacturing, while for females the declines were mainly in manufacturing, finance, other services, public administration, and health care and social assistant industries. With the exception of manufacturing, the decline in employment in industries for females does not appear to be related to an over-all shift in the labour force away from these industries. The main industries that have expanded for teenagers are retail trade, accommodation and food services, management, and information, cultural and recreation jobs.

30As with the employment of teenagers by industry, there as been an increased concentration of occupations where they work. [Table III]  Seventy percent of teenage females work in sales, accommodation services, and as servers, while 52% of males work in these areas. Teenage males’ occupations are more diverse with a substantial proportion of the total working in construction and transportation (17%) and occupations in the primary sectors (9.4%). Over time females had a smaller proportion of their work in social science and government occupation and manufacturing, occupations.  The major occupational changes for teenage females over the past 30 years has been the reduction in the proportion of females working in clerical occupations, which accounted for almost 20% of their total work in 1977, but about 8% in 2011. For males, the major changes are the reductions in farming and other primary occupations totalling 15% in 1977, but about 9% in 2007 and manufacturing and construction jobs, totalling about 41% in 1977, but about 23% in 2007.

  • 10  Statistics Canada, Table 3, “Women and young people occupy most minimum-wage jobs,” http://www.sta (...)

31The gendered distinctions in wages for teenagers are less strong than for other age groups. This is primarily because a large proportion of all teenagers (41%) are working at the minimum wage and most are concentrated in low-wage sectors. However, females are more highly concentrated in the minimum wage category: 58% of teenage minimum wage workers are female, representing about 42% of all teenage working females.10

PART III: Experiences of Work

32The stories of teenagers themselves provide insights into their specific social experiences of work, such as what job tasks they perform, how they interact with co-workers and customers and how they understand their rights as employees. The interviews focused on a wide range of issues and the focus group discussions where students interacted with each other raised a great many more. For the purposes of this paper, the information related to the precarious nature of the workplace and how work experiences differ by gender have been selected. Three aspects of precariousness were particularly apparent through the interview and discussions with teenagers. These are the physical dangers, harassment, and general working conditions that affect the ability to retain a job or be paid decently.  The gendered nature of these experiences appear to be related to both the differences in the types of work males and female perform and the distinctions in the ways that employers, co-workers, and customers treat employees that is gender-related.

Physical Dangers

33The physical dangers involved in teenagers’ jobs are made dramatically clear by work-related deaths and serious injuries. The issue was national news in late 2011 when Walmart was charged for the death of a 17 year old in Grand Falls, New Brunswick. Patrick Desjardins died from injuries as a result of an electric shock after touching the cord of a floor buffer. (Toronto Sun, 2011)  Recent teenage work-place deaths in BC involved an 18 year-old male sawmill worker crushed by a log, a 19 year old male diver drowned, and another 19 year old male killed in a forklift accident (Worksafe BC). All of these deaths were in jobs that are typically held by males.

34From 2008 to 2010 thirty-one teenagers in Canada died on the job, most within a few months of being hired, and 30,850 had injuries serious enough for their loss work-time claims to be upheld by workers compensation boards. (Association of Workers Compensation Boards).  In B.C. the industries with the highest lost time claims from injuries were the industries where teenagers are concentrated: the retail industry, accommodation and food services. But injuries were also high in the construction, metal and minerals, and wood and paper industries. (Workers` Compensation Board of British Columbia). Teenagers have higher rates of occupational injuries than adult workers and this receives some attention but so far this has not been sufficient to give rise to serious consideration of policy changes to avoid them.  According to a study in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, young workers are at a higher risk for job-related injuries than older workers because of unsafe working conditions, lack of supervision and training, lack of proper equipment, and an overall lack of attention to health and safety in many workplaces (Mardis and Pratt, 1998.)

  • 11  Work typically done by females can lead to chronic and acute conditions that are frequently overlo (...)

35The gender differences in job-related physical injuries are strong with males reporting higher rates of injury than females. These gender differences are related to differences in the type of work that males and females perform, but it should be noted that it is possible that the higher rate for males may be associated with the kinds of injuries studied and reported.11

36The details of how teenagers perceive danger and their working conditions were evident in the group interviews for this study. Students tend to underestimate the dangers associated with their work; they rarely report injuries, so clearly they are not a part of official statistics; they assume some injuries will be just a normal part of a job; and in general they receive inadequate job-safety training that pertains to their specific work. Most of the workers in this study said that they did not receive any health or safety training at work. While many recognized dangers in their workplaces, many appeared to have little understanding of just how dangerous some work situations can be. This might have something to do with their level of maturity, but it is clear from their interviews that a great deal relates to poor training, little supervision, inadequate government monitoring of the work, and a workplace culture that does not accentuate health and safety protocol.

  • 12  The names of participants are pseudonyms they selected themselves. Their ethnicity is self-identif (...)
  • 13  Len was 22 and was in the focus group discussion because it took place at a community centre and h (...)

37In one example, the issue of safety came up in the group discussion and a 17- year old female participant (Amy, 17 Asian/European12), who attends safety committee meetings each month in the restaurant where she works, used her workplace as a good example of safety consciousness and how the managers assume responsibility when things get tough. They do this especially when people are doing drugs in the washroom. Amy’s job then was to `just clean up the mess, like needles in the washroom. I usually just throw it in the garbage… it’s really common.’ The group dynamic in this case was interesting because some of the workers understood the inherent dangers in this task, while others clearly did not. A 17 year old male (Mel, Asian) in the same focus group who works at McDonald’s also deals with needles but did not throw them in the garbage saying ‘we have this boxy thingy. Every time we see the needle we just grab it and then put it in the can.’ Len, a male participant in the focus group who was older, more experienced and much more cognizant of the dangers these kinds of actions imposed, pointed out that the needles were biohazards, and because they could be very dangerous should have special protocols, such as not disposing them in the general garbage and that they should not be touched by these workers at all.13 But this observation was dismissed by Amy who said ¨it’s not like I’m touching the needle. ¨

38In another group interview Michael (19) who works in a retail shoe store talked about the dangers in the store and because `things are not kept properly` they keep `falling over.¨ He once hurt himself falling off a ladder. But serious problems arise when the store is understaffed and crowded. This is when theft can occur and management fully expects employees to prevent the theft. One of Michael’s co-workers tried to apprehend a shoplifter, who returned the following day and shot a gun at the window of the store. Although handling bio-hazardous material and dealing with customers with guns are not typical experiences of teenage workers, the above incidents illustrate that some teenagers are exposed to very dangerous conditions at work that are not properly acknowledge by management and are not reported in any statistics.

39Some of the most dangerous work was reported by a focus group with a majority consisting of aboriginal youth at a community centre. Almost all of these workers tended to perform heavy labouring work. A striking example of the harm that can occur because of age and lack of training is clear from the testimony of a 19 year-old aboriginal male. He has worked as a day-labourer “doing just about everything you don’t want to do” and described his injuries: ¨I’ve had carbon monoxide poisoning, I’ve been rendered unconscious with a brick. I’ve had both my knees hyper-extended, broken both wrists. I’ve had multiple back problems.’ He explained ignorance, inexperience, and lack of training as the problem: ¨I’ve been doing this kind of work since I was 13 years old, and a 13 year old kid isn’t going to know that when you hop into an oil tank you’re going to get CO2 poisoning.” The discussion in this group spent time talking about the problems of companies hiring really young workers. Another 19-year-old male (European identity) said:

We used to hire kids as low as 16 and were they ever bitchy. Like, these kids are so accident-prone. When you’re that age you don’t know how to properly handle things. You’ve got this one guy, 17, carrying asbestos out of the building with his bare hands, you know, putting it in the dumpster with dust all over his face.

40These are the kinds of injuries and hazards that tend to be specific to the work that is associated with construction and primary-sector work, work that is rarely done by female teenagers but is often entry-level work for males who hope to enter apprenticeship programs eventually.

41Many discussions focused on the training that teenage workers received and while most did not dwell on the inadequacy of the safety training, those working in cooking-related jobs seemed to be acutely conscious of the problem. A 19 year old female who works as a cook in a casino worried about the lock-down procedures to protect the casino’s money and what might happen in a fire or an earthquake: `They don’t really go over any safety procedures for fires, earthquakes or anything like that. What happens if there’s a fire and the building locks down? They don’t tell you, oh here’s your access code. ¨  She also reported that although she had Food First and First Aid training, there is no training in the handling of knives, meat slicers or any other kitchen apparatus: ¨they pretty much hand you a stack of potatoes and a big blade and tell you, here, make French fries. ¨

  • 14  This might have been said with irony.

42Similarly, a 17 year old male high school student who works at a bakery received 12 hours of training, but it was ¨mainly how to sell, how to deal with the customers, ¨ but not in baking, which he found dangerous because of inadequate gloves that wear out quickly, the lack of instruction for using either the oven or the 25 blade bread blazer, and a very slippery floor. His baking instruction pretty much involved ¨don’t touch the blade. ¨ But as he describes it, ¨ when the polling comes out, you are touching the blade and you are touching the bread. ¨  He said he talked to his boss about getting burnt, falling almost every shift, and that he was worried about having the tips of his fingers cut off: ¨but other than that it’s a pretty safe place to work. ¨14 Most students interviewed assumed that minor injuries were to be expected on the job and this may explain why so few ever reported their injuries. The minor injuries included burns, cuts, falling, and even minor acts of violence at the workplace.


43Workplace hazards not only include physical injuries incurred on the job, but also workers’ exposure to harassment. There are very clear gendered distinctions in respondents’ experiences with harassment, something that is consistent with the finding of other studies of teenage workers. (Mayhew and Quinlan, 2002; Koerhoorn and Breslin, 2003). Though not often classified as a workplace danger or occupational hazard, harassment appears to be a widespread workplace risk for both adolescent male and female workers, although it was experienced more often among females in this study.  

44Initial conversations about the various different types of actions that could be considered harassment (sexual, verbal, physical, and psychological harassment from co-workers, customers, management or employers) seemed to trigger wider recognition that harassment did not only mean sexual harassment, but could include a range of inappropriate behavour. Most students were more comfortable discussing harassment they had witnessed than their own experiences, but once someone would open up, this triggered willingness to recognize their own experience as harassment. In general the females interviewed experienced harassment more than males and aboriginal respondents most often reported incidents of harassment.  Of the males who had been harassed, the most common type of harassment was verbal, although more than half of those harassed had experienced some form of physical harassment at work. None of the male participants experienced or recognized psychological harassment, however some male participants reported incidents of sexual harassment. Almost all of the male harassment was by a manager or employer.  

45Young women were more likely to be harassed by customers than the young men, although they also experience harassment from co-workers, and managers. The differences in the type of harassment experienced by males and females are clearly related to the different types of work males and females were performing, even within the same industry or occupation. Teenage females experienced harassment from customers because they were more likely to work at jobs that entailed direct contact with customers than were males. In this study the majority of young women who experienced harassment were harassed by clients or customers.

46A number of participants understood the relationship between sex-typed jobs and the harassment they experienced. But they tended to attribute innate characteristics of being female or male to the type of work they did – e.g., young women were concentrated in customer service type jobs because they are more polite and social, which helps them to deal with the public better. Despite the general notion among the teenagers that women were more suited to jobs dealing with the public, many respondents who worked in customer service felt customers were likely to treat them harshly precisely because of their age and gender and some appeared to be frustrated with this gendered division that forced women to take on the type of stress that customer service entails. Lisa tells the group that,

“90 percent of the customer service representatives are women, but for sales it’s basically men at the management levels. There are two supervisors who are women but the rest are men. Basically for my department customer service rep, you take all the shit. So women take the shit.”

47On her first day on the job “Friday” (18 years) who works at a fast food chain was verbally harassed by an elderly male customer standing in line who was impatient with her inexperience.

“Well I was serving this customer and it was my first day and I didn’t exactly know how to work the cash register and …this guy …was yelling at me… I’m like, ‘I’m not even serving you!’

48Sarah (17 years) related an incident of customer rage:

“One time an angry customer threw a bottle at one of my co-workers because she would not take it for the deposit return because it was all dirty. But he’s been harassing her for a while. It wasn’t an isolated incident at all.” When asked why the store keeps letting him in she said, “there is a policy of not banning people.”

49The workers interviewed rarely understood their own participation in harassment, particularly when it was related to racalized incidents. One male working in retail describes the place where he works where most of the employees are Asian. “There is harassment but it’s in a joke way. Like, there’s no grabbing or anything like that, or touching.” He gave examples:

Like we make up a joke: the manager says we’re missing some shoes – is that black guy working there? He must have taken it. That kind of thing, but we just joke around like that. One time it was really busy before Christmas so someone took a dump in the washroom there and somehow there was poop on top of the seat and no one would admit it. We had a secret meeting between a couple of employees and we blamed it on the black guy, just for fun. We don’t think it’s him but we just joke around.

50Others referred to racist customers that harass staff. Sarah, who works at a café with workers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, all of whom treat each other well, recounted the racism the staff encountered from customers.

This one guy called in and found out they were Jewish and he started swearing and said that he’s never going to come back again and all that stuff. Another lady came in another time and said that the girl messed up her order because of the colour of her skin. It’s like the colour of her skin made her not understand?

51Sexual harassment was most frequently reported and discussed by females and comes in a variety of forms and from customers, co-workers, and managers or employers. According to 19-year old ‘Brooke’, her experience of sexual harassment from a co-worker began when

“…He just said something about having a ‘great ass’ and you know, ‘if you’re this good at your job, imagine what you’re like in bed’. The kind of thing where I know it was meant as a joke, it’s not the kind of thing where I can turn around and sue him for sexual harassment even though I’d love to get him fired. He just says these annoying things…it’s not funny!”

52One of the biggest problems expressed by the participants in the focus group discussions was how management dealt with harassment once they complained. Usually nothing happened, but when it was management that was the problem, the workers had no option but to leave. ‘Jeri’ told the focus group of harassment she witnessed in her workplaces “…the current manager, although he was charged with sexual harassment, the charges kind of went away, and I don’t know what happened.” In this case the employee left the workplace.

53In another case ‘Osete’ (18 year old male) described an instance of sexual harassment he and another female co-worker experienced.  

“I was working with this guy and he was a pervert and he touched a lot of girls in there…one time I was taking out the garbage and he locked me in the garbage place. He wouldn’t let me out and he tried to do something to me. I was so scared. They caught him but they never did anything. They complained but the boss still let him stay there and then that’s where, right there I quit.”

54The lack of avenues for teenagers’ complaints speaks to a serious lack of proper enforcement of employment regulations and standards and the lack of avenues for teenagers, should they experience harassment.  This inability to find avenues to redress inappropriate employer behaviour became particularly problematic in BC when labour protections were undermined early in the 21st century. ‘Self-help’ kits accessible on the internet became the primary way that employees could deal with employer infraction of labour law. No longer were people available to take calls and give advice to those who had a complaint. This meant that the recourse most frequently used was to walk away from the job.

Working Conditions

55The group discussions highlighted the kinds of negative working conditions that teenage students often encounter and for which they had little redress. On the whole they had very little knowledge of employee rights or of legal requirements for employers. As part of these sessions, information about employment standards were distributed and information about recent changes to these standards became part of the discussion. Students were most eager to talk about the stresses of the job, although many recognized that they were gaining valuable experience. Often the poor treatment was simply accepted as part of the job and included a variety of types of employers’ actions such as too little instruction for the work demanded, too much responsibility, a job description that did not match the job, poorly maintained premises and not being paid what was promised.

56A large proportion of the students in this study self-identified as either immigrants or from immigrant families and it was fairly characteristic for them to work in establishments that were owned or managed by people from their own ethnic group. In a surprising number of discussions the problems of poor working conditions were associated by the employees with the ethnicity of the employer and a sense that the employers themselves were not aware of appropriate and inappropriate demands on workers in Canada. One example of this was the experience of Sophia, who worked in a Korean restaurant and complained of the pace of the work. This restaurant is part of a large chain of restaurants in Korea and all of the people working at this restaurant in Vancouver were Korean. Her work involved “everything chefs don’t do, including washing toilets.” There was no socializing and no rest periods at the workplace ‘because the camera is always watching.” When asked to explain she said:

Four cameras are always watching from the head office in Korea. We can’t drink or eat in front of the camera, there are no breaks and we are always standing. There is no talking between waitresses and there is only a five minute break to eat. Korea phones in, shift manager gets feedback. Shift manager gets mad.

57She has had conflicts with the manager ‘over what comes out on camera.” Sophia feels the manager ‘has a Korean mindset and does not live like a Canadian.” She definitely does not like her job and “doesn’t want to work for Asian restaurants.” A similar complaint was heard from a 19 year old female who self-identified as Chinese who was working refilling ink cartridges and dealing with customers at an all Asian establishment. She describes her boss as being very demanding and she resents the lack of employee benefits, such as health care.  

I have to say working for an Asian boss, like not being stereotypical, but they kind of go underneath things, reduce costs and stuff. They want more money and more profit but they kind of neglect the workers and stuff and especially young ones.

58This worker recognized that workplace rights are “a very sensitive area to be talked about culturally. Probably for Asians it’s more like you work and that’s it. Even my dad complains there are no benefits and he works for a really big company.” The issue of the ethnicity of the workplace sometimes led to greater responsibilities than the workers felt was appropriate. This seemed to occur mostly because the owner or manager did not speak English well, or had a clientele whose language s/he did not speak, as was the case for one worker whose boss only spoke Mandarin while she could speak Cantonese as well. The teenage workers who spoke the needed language had to do things and make decisions that seemed to them to be more managerial in nature than the job they were hired to do. For some this was stressful, particularly if they had little previous experience, but for others it was an good opportunity to gain more experience.  

59One of the most stressful situations for students related to instability in employment hours. Cancelling work was fairly common, particularly in retail and food-service work when business was slow. Lucy (18) for example, did not always get paid every two weeks “because sometimes when my boss is not in her office, she asks me not to go into work because she’s not there.” But the most stressful was when employers demanded more work time, even when they knew this meant students would not be able to attend classes. Bruce, a 19 year old male said of his employer, “he knows my timetable but he puts his priority first over mine. But that’s totally because he’s my boss.”

  • 15  The minimum amount of work time an employer was able to provide dropped from four hours to two hou (...)

60Problems related to pay were fairly common, with most students feeling they were underpaid for what they were doing. Because of the existing ‘training wage’ that was $2 per hour less than the minimum wage, the pay of the younger teenage workers in this study was usually very low. The ‘training wage’ was more significant for females as they entered the labour force than it was for males in the interview group. Many participants complained that they were not paid for the minimum two-hour call out when they were sent home during a shift and others were not being paid on a regular basis.15 When a 15-year old female joined the discussion about pay she said, “I haven’t got my salary yet but I think they’re not going to give it to me.” She seemed to be under the impression that her employer did not need to pay her for a training period.  One of the most common problems was not being paid what was expected. It was not uncommon for students to answer an ad that specified a specific wage, but then discover at the first pay check that it was different. There were also problems with not getting paid for the hours of work done, as was clear from the report of an 18 year old male who identified as ‘aboriginal/French/European’:

The people in the office sit around and doodle in people’s time cards….and even if it says on the time card that we worked 12 hours that day they put down 8 hours…and that’s how much you get.

61The females interviewed were more concentrated in the minimum wage and training-wage jobs than were males. This pattern is typical of the national pattern as well and is likely related to the concentration of females by industry and occupation. Few females related their relatively lower pay to discrimination, although they did think unequal wages and the ‘training wage’ were unfair. Problems with sufficient hours of work and low pay led many of the interviewees to have multiple jobs, with females more likely to have several jobs than males. Teenage women’s higher concentration in multiple jobs may be a result of their lower levels of pay.  The females tended to associate their lower pay with different work and the likelihood that any heavy lifting would be done by males, although some resented the gendered division of labour such as situations where cooks are males and the wait staff female. The most usual complaint about gender-related unfairness was with regard to workload with females frequently feeling they had too much responsibility and had to take on duties like closing the establishment late at night.

62Many of the participants in the study believed that they were underpaid for the tasks they did on the job and sensed that they were paid less because of their age, and not because of their lower level of job skills, or performing different job tasks than that of their adult counterparts. As ‘Michael’ recounts,

“I get paid to lift heavy boxes of clothing, sometimes I think I’m underpaid. The amount of work that I do is because I’ve been there for so long, I can do almost everything. The only thing I can’t do is the refund but I can do everything else in the store like paperwork for transfer, window display.”

63Young women also felt that they were not paid appropriately for the work they performed. As ‘Jane’ (19 years) expressed to the focus group,

I think I do too much for the wage I’m being paid, only because the responsibilities that were outlined to me when I joined the job aren’t what I’m doing now…at times my manager will leave and say, ‘can you finish the mailing list for me, can you do this for me?’ and you can’t really say no.

64As with other negative workplace experiences, both young women and men found it very difficult to complain about poor working conditions, and often resorted to quitting their jobs rather than bringing their complaints to management. Older teenage workers seemed to be more willing to leave poor working conditions. When asked why she left her job at the fast food outlet, 17 year old ‘Patricia’ said,

I left because no one wanted to close so they made us do closing shifts and they were really bad…weekdays you have to close at midnight and then weekends you close at 3 in the morning.

65Violations of employment standards stretch far beyond inappropriate pay schedules or withholding ‘training’ pay from teenage workers who are unaware of their rights as employees. Teenage workers often go for long periods of time without proper breaks, work excessive hours and experience inappropriate work schedules. In one case, a 19 year old female who worked at a retail job was denied a break during a shift that lasted for over 18 hours and was forced to eat while she worked. She was also required to come in the next day for another shift.

66While most of the respondents recognized the exploitation that was occurring in their workplaces, they tended not to associate poor working conditions with low levels of unionization in the workplace. When asked about unions, some expressed a dislike for unions, while most knew little about unionization. Few of the participants were part of a union (four males, eight females). This is consistent with other studies that have noted low levels of unionization of teenage workers in Canada (Bryson et al., 2005). Teenage workers’ concentration in service sector jobs such as in food and retail service generally have low levels of unionization. One 17 year old female respondent was part of a union, but didn’t know what being in a union actually meant, beyond getting paid ‘union wages’. In contrast, Ambrose (Male, 19) clearly understood the benefits from being in a trade union.  

“All my jobs except for this one are with a union. With a union there's much more protection against what your employer can and cannot do. So I felt perfectly safe because I have my union backing me up. That was a bonus.”

67The youngest age group of teenage workers, the 15 and 16 year olds, seemed to be the least knowledgeable of their rights as employees and employment standards. Those who were between 17 and 19 and who had some experience in the labour force were more knowledgeable about their rights, and could identify a dangerous or improper working environment.

68In the discussion groups the positive aspects of work were often identified and ranged from the freedom the money gives, to a relief that the work is mindless and in this respect an escape from the pressures of school. Almost all appreciated meeting people, socializing, and many recognized the skills they were developing, including the ability to practice English. Students had surprisingly similar opinions about what made jobs good or bad.  One 19 year old male who had two jobs summed it up this way:

A good job is one when you finish every day feeling satisfied, receive good pay, are treated with respect and a bad job is one where you don’t enjoy your work, you hate going there, you hate getting up in the morning and come home feeling bad.”

69The general consensus from those interviewed is that the best jobs are those where the workplace culture is pleasant, the boss is fair, where employers can be flexible to accommodate academic demands, where there is a positive attitude between employees (particularly where the employees socialize with each other), and when there is some variation in the work. The pay rate was not high on the list of requirements for a good job. As Clair (19 year old female of Asian origin) said:

I don’t think wages are really a good indication of whether it’s a good or bad job. You can get paid really well for a job that just sucks, and you can get paid badly for a job that’s really worthwhile.

70For Clair, feeling she’s good at what she does (making burgers) and getting to ‘hang out and have fun with the other workers’ was most important.  

Conclusions: Experiencing Gender Distinctions and Precarious Work

71Gendered differences in male and female paid employment is evident even at entry-level work. While the wages between male and female teenagers are much more similar than they are for any another age group, other aspects of work reflect significant gender differences. Statistical information about teenage workers show that females tend to be more concentrated in specific industries and occupations than are males, a characteristic that is found in older workers as well. Over the years this concentration has increased for both male and female teenage workers, but it is more pronounced among females.  Teenagers mostly find work in retail trade, accommodation and food services, and the industries associated with information, culture and recreation. Occupational distribution has similarly narrowed with most working in sales, accommodation services, and as servers, but the concentration for females is much greater than for males: 70% of females work in these occupations, compared with 52% of males.

72The gendered distinctions are also evident in the labour force participation rates and hours of work. Since the beginning of the 20th century female teenagers have maintained higher participation rates than males. Among students, females began to have higher participation rates in the early 1990s. For all teenagers and for teenage students, the participation rates are increasingly diverging by gender.  Both males and females experienced a severe reduction in the ability to find work since the recession beginning in 2008. This is true for all teenagers and for teenaged students. Males were more dramatically affected by females in this downturn, with participation rates reaching lows approaching those in the late 1990s. The 2008 recession hit industries with a male workforce particularly hard, especially in the manufacturing, construction, and primary industries. Female participation rates dropped, but not as dramatically. The effect of the recession on participation rates is one aspect of the especially precarious nature of teenage work, since this category of workers’ participation rates are most affected by recession.

73The precarious nature of work experienced by many teenagers also is related to the gendered differences in the workforce. This is not only evident in distinctions in the participation rates, but also in the physical dangers experienced on the job and the types of harassment encountered. Male teenagers are much more likely to be injured or be killed on the job than are females.  Those interviewed in this study showed that females were more likely to experience harassment on the job than were males and the types of harassment encountered was different as well. Males reported experiencing verbal harassment from an employer or manager, while females reported verbal and sexual harassment more frequently by customers, but also from co-workers and employers or managers.  These differences in experiences of harassment also seemed to be related to the different types of work performed by males and females, even within similar occupations and industries.

74 The neo-liberal approaches to public policy have characterized BC in the 21st century. Changes in labour policies have led to many fewer protections for workers, a shift that most affects vulnerable workers and has led to a deterioration in conditions for some groups of teenage workers.This study has shown that the current labour protections for both teenage male and female workers are inadequate to deal with the conditions they encounter. Too many experienced exploitative conditions where they had little alternative except to leave the job. The overall picture is that while for many teenagers work is decent and employers are conscious of their need to train and adequately supervise teenagers, the exceptions to this are frequently encountered. The teenagers interviewed showed that they have little protection against dangerous working conditions, harassment, excessive or inappropriate hours of work, or problems with pay. The BC government’s restructuring of the Employment Standards Act gave workers even fewer protections than they have had in the past. This is a disturbing development of the 21st century and one that does not appear to be about to change with the focus on assuring low-waged labour that characterizes the current economic climate.

75The age and vulnerability of teenagers requires that their working conditions are not exploitative or dangerous. Appropriate monitoring of their working conditions to ensure that employers are obeying the law is a minimal requirement to protect these workers. But also necessary are appropriate regulations to prevent unscrupulous behaviour on the part of employers and wages that do not exploit youth. In pointing out the gendered nature of the teenage workforce, the objective is not to show that either males or females necessarily has an employment advantage at this initial stage of workforce participation. Nevertheless, distinct work experiences are evident from initial work experiences and this is contrary to an accepted belief that it is the subsequent responsibilities that women have regarding children and family that creates the major distinctions between adult male and female wages and occupations. The tendency for these gendered divisions to occur can be seen even in entry level work.   


This study was part of a large-scale 5-year research project, The Economic Security Project, that examined the implications of public policy changes in B.C. on vulnerable populations. This project that was funded through the Community-University Research Alliance grants through the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The principle partners in the Economic Security Project were Marjorie Griffin Cohen (Simon Fraser University) and Seth Klein (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-BC). I would like to their the following for their work doing interviews, research and analysis: Lisa Clark, Matt Pelling, Natasha Paterson, Xinying Hu, Cecila Carlaw, Stewart Murray, Monica Tang, Thi Vu, and Heather Whiteside.  I also appreciate the cooperation of the students interviewed.

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1  Katherine DuPre Lumpkin and Dorothy Wolff Douglas, Child Workers in America, 1937, quoted in Ellen Greenberger & Laurence Steinberg, When Teenagers Work: The Psychology and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment (New York: Basic Books, 1986), p. ii.

2  The two small two-person interviews and the seven individual interviews were undertaken out of necessity to accommodate either language or scheduling issues. Some students originating from China were more comfortable being interviewed in their primary language.

3  It now requires only the consent of one parent. Similar legislation was introduced in Alberta in 2005.  (Schultz and Taylor 2006, pp. 431).

4  The point of the government oversight was to ensure that the child’s academic standing would not be impaired through this work. A government permit is still required for children under 12 years.

5  This ‘training wage’ was eliminated in 2011 by the new Liberal Premiere, Christy Clark. The minimum wage itself did not change for 10 years in B.C.

6  Both the UN and the ILO define the appropriate minimum working age as 15 in developed countries and 14 in developing countries. While a ‘child’ is identified as anyone under 18, ‘child labour,’ is generally acknowledged to mean work for children that harms or exploits them. These internationally defined age norms would indicate that government sanctioned work for those under 15 in Canada, such as occurs in Alberta and BC, does not conform to international standards. Sources:;

7  After the study on Child and Youth Employment Standards by Irwin, McBride and Strubin was published the government did shift its policy for young workers so that they could speak directly to a government employee rather than use a self-help kit.

8 This varies during the year with higher rates of participation during the summer months.

9  The appropriate number of hours a teenager should work is a continuing focus of study. Most conclude that there is a correlation between long hours of work and poorer school or university performance. (Staff, Schulenberg, and Bachmann; Rozick 2007.

10  Statistics Canada, Table 3, “Women and young people occupy most minimum-wage jobs,”

11  Work typically done by females can lead to chronic and acute conditions that are frequently overlooked in studies and are less frequently reported. These types of work related injuries include musculoskeletical injuries from fast repetitive motions or static standing as well as emotional risks associated with the stress of some service-type jobs. (Mayhew & Quinlan 2002, Breslin, Loehoorn, Smith Manno 2003)

12  The names of participants are pseudonyms they selected themselves. Their ethnicity is self-identified.

13  Len was 22 and was in the focus group discussion because it took place at a community centre and he was a member of the general group interviewed. He was one of the three whose participation was outside the age limit, but in this case his perception was significant for the group discussion.

14  This might have been said with irony.

15  The minimum amount of work time an employer was able to provide dropped from four hours to two hours when significant changes to Employment Standards were made in the first decade of the 21st century in BC.

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Marjorie Griffin Cohen, « Teenage Work: Its Precarious and Gendered Nature »Revue Interventions économiques [En ligne], 47 | 2013, mis en ligne le 13 février 2013, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Marjorie Griffin Cohen

Professor, Political Science/GSWS, Simon Fraser University

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