Young workers – Handle with care

The recent furore over top football clubs signing young players from overseas raises questions about the rules and regulations of employing youngsters. Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger warned that the football world would face a very bleak future if UEFA succeeds in persuading the European Commission to ban the international transfer of under-18s.

Wenger said that Arsenal wanted to open the doors to the best players in the world, and that developing talent was vital to the success of the game. “I think we are being rewarded for our youth policy over the years, but with the new rules coming in, it will make that policy virtually impossible,” he said.

But it’s not only Premier League football clubs that have a so-called ‘youth policy’. Although many politically correct HR directors would shudder at such a term in their bid to avoid any claims for age discrimination, employers will be hiring thousands of young workers in the run up to Christmas. Most of these temporary staff will probably be students and school leavers.

One of the main reasons employers hire young workers is because they are comparatively cheap. The national minimum wage recently increased to £4.83 per hour for 18- to 21-year-olds and £3.57 for 16 and 17-year-olds. That’s compared to the standard rate of £5.80 per hour.

So what are the do’s and don’ts of employing young workers? Do the standard employment regulations – Working Time Regulations (WTR), dismissal procedures, health and safety etc – still apply?

First, it’s important to distinguish the different categories of employees under the age of 18, says Will Nash, solicitor at Charles Russell law firm. “There are two categories – children and young people. Under English law, a child is someone who is under the compulsory school-leaving age. A young person is someone who has ceased to be a child, but is under the age of 18,” he explains.

The standard regulations, such as disciplinary and dismissal, grievances, TUPE and taxation, all apply to workers under 18. The WTR, however, vary considerably.

Under-18s are only permitted to work a maximum of eight hours per day, and a maximum of 40 hours per week under the WTR. Young workers must also have a rest break of 30 minutes if they work more than four-and-a-half hours at a time, and 12 consecutive hours of rest in any 24-hour period. The standard maximum is 48 hours a week for workers over 18, an 11-hour rest period in 24 hours, and a 20-minute rest break every six hours or more.

There are other restrictions on the hours young people work. Nash says: “They are not permitted to work in the ‘restricted period’ of 10pm to 6am. However, where a contract of employment obliges work after 10pm, the restricted period shifts from 11pm to 7am.”

Any business employing under-18s outside the usual ‘nine to five’ could, therefore, fall foul of the WTR. And football clubs are no exception. There may be numerous occasions where a young player would be expected to travel to or from an away game, especially evening fixtures.

General health and safety requirements also apply to workers between the ages of 16 and 18, but employers should carry out thorough risk assessments and training where appropriate, and take into account a young person’s lack of experience. Kitchens, workshops and factories could be especially hazardous.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no obligation for an employer to provide vocational training for an employee under the age of 18. It is, however, certainly seen as a big plus if you do. McDonald’s, Network Rail and Flybe are all accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to provide A-level and GCSE equivalent qualifications, and this has boosted their brand and recruitment pulling power considerably. It’s also common for football clubs to offer further education and/or vocational courses to young players.

Arsenal works with the National Literacy Trust to run programmes known as Double Clubs, which focus on both football and literacy. It also runs a drop-in centre for adults interested in improving their IT skills and finding out more about further education opportunities.

So, employing under-18s is reasonably straightforward as long as employers abide by the basic principles of the WTR. But are there any major employment law changes in the pipeline?

“The simple answer is no,” says Nash. “Perhaps the most recent relevant piece of legislation is the age regulations. This means that employers need to take into account young staff, as well as perhaps the more obvious category of older workers, when making decisions, and should be aware that they have as much right to bring an age discrimination claim.”

For most young people, however, becoming a Premier League footballer (or dating one) is little more than a pipe dream. And, fortunately, it’s not just football clubs that are hiring.


Q Can a young worker decide to work more than the limit imposed by the Working Time Regulations?

A No, a young worker must not be permitted to opt out of the maximum weekly and daily hours limits imposed by the Working Time Regulations 1998.

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HSE guidance

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) stresses that under health and safety law, employers must assess the risks to young people under 18 before they start work or work experience and tell them what the risks are. They should also:

  • take into account that young people are likely to be inexperienced, unaware of health and safety risks, and physically or mentally immature
  • put in place measures to control the risks which will remove them altogether or reduce them to the lowest possible level
  • let the parents/guardians of any students (and employees) below minimum school-leaving age know the key findings of the risk assessment and the control measures taken before the young people start work/work experience
  • keep a record of the main findings of the risk assessment, if you have five or more employees (including young people on work experience).

Employers may be able to use or adapt a general risk assessment for young people doing the same job or work experience as adults, but it must be adapted appropriately.

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