'Tis the season for safe employment of child workers: considerations for employing child workers over the holidays

​​​​​​The holiday season is upon us, and for the young person who has completed their exams, the extra time the holidays bring them is an opportunity for possible work exposure, holiday jobs and an opportunity to earn income. Employers in the retail, hospitality, and food and beverage industries may welcome the opportunity to employ enthusiastic youth, providing extra cover during a busy holiday period.

The recent news of McDonald's committing to tighter child labour compliance in the US is a cautionary note to balance the importance of providing youth with a start in the working world with the additional legislative considerations that come with employing children. Youthful naivety, a lack of experience in the job market, and a willingness to make a good impression on prospective employers, or to make as much money as possible ​where tipping and discretionary payments are customary, on the behalf of the youth offering their labour, combined with efforts to service extra demand at high volume (and therefore high pressure environments) the behalf of the employer, can, however, be a potential risk for employers, when wanting to guard against contravention of labour safety regulations. Unique legal obligations are applicable when allowing the youth to engage in employment, even if this is part time or casual holiday employment. A snapshot of some key legal considerations employers should keep in mind when employing youngsters over the holiday season is discussed below.

The Regulations on Hazardous Work by Children in South Africa, published in terms of both the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (the Regulations), are generally aimed at protecting the health and safety of child workers who are lawfully entitled to work by prohibiting them from engaging in certain kinds of work, and placing conditions on the work they may lawfully undertake. A child worker is essentially defined in these regulations as being a child (i.e. a person under the age of 18) who:

  • is employed by or who works for an employer; or
  • works under the direction or supervision of an employer or any other person.

The Regulations impose unique legal obligations on employers who employ child workers because of, among other things, their ongoing physiological development and, as a result, increased vulnerability to chemical substances, sleep disruption, and coercion and/or abuse. These unique obligations also apply due to a child  worker's possible lack of maturity in making safety judgments, and their potentially reduced ability to adapt to work routines and perceive danger.

The Regulations prohibit, and in some instances make it an offence for any person to require or permit a child worker to undertake work that carries unacceptable risk of harm. This includes but is not limited to exposing child workers to physical, psychological or sexual abuse. Consider a flirtatious remark from a patron at a holiday club or a frustrated outburst from a customer trying to get their Christmas shopping done: while employees of any age ought not be required to endure such treatment, more onerous obligations fall upon the employer when engaging child workers for any job where the risk of such exposure is likely. Other examples of prohibited work include work in a bar, pub or other establishment whose primary business is to sell alcoholic beverages to the general public, for consumption on the premises, or work in a casino or other gambling establishment.

Retail managers would need to consider whether the energetic child worker is the most appropriate employee to send into the storeroom for stock to replenish shopfront shelves, as the Regulations prohibit a child worker from lifting objects weighing 15 kg, or 20 percent of the child's body weight (whichever is less), and from lifting objects weighing more than 7.5 kg more than once per minute. The Regulations also require that child workers be given 30-minute breaks after every 2 hours of lifting objects weighing more than 5 kg. Hard manual labour exceeding 15 minutes per hour is also prohibited, although this prohibition must be read with the Environmental Regulations for Workspaces, published in terms of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The Regulations further prohibit any person from requiring or permitting a child to undertake piecework (i.e. work where the child's remuneration is based on the quantity of work done) or task work (i.e. work where the child's remuneration is based on the completion of set tasks). This prohibition does not, however, bar an employer from paying a child a commission or incentive payment on the completion of a task, provided the child is paid the minimum wage prescribed for that work or a consistent basic wage based on time worked, which is more than the commission or incentive payment.

In relation to working hours, the Regulations prohibit a child from working for more than 8 hours a day. Child workers who are not enrolled at school are prohibited from working for more than 40 hours a week, while child workers who are enrolled at school are prohibited from working for more than 40 hours a week during school holidays. A child is also generally not permitted to work before 6 am or after 6 pm on any day, but may work between 6 pm and 11 pm if they are working in a restaurant, cinema, theatre or shop where there is adequate adult supervision.

The above should not dissuade employers from employing children, particularly during holiday and high-volume seasons where the work experience may ultimately be extremely beneficial to both the child and the employer. Instead, it should sensitise employers to the particular safety needs of child workers.


These materials are provided for general information purposes only and do not constitute legal or other professional advice. While every effort is made to update the information regularly and to offer the most current, correct and accurate information, we accept no liability or responsibility whatsoever if any information is, for whatever reason, incorrect, inaccurate or dated. We accept no responsibility for any loss or damage, whether direct, indirect or consequential, which may arise from access to or reliance on the information contained herein.

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Webber Wentzel > News > 'Tis the season for safe employment of child workers: considerations for employing child workers over the holidays
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