Following an investigation triggered by complaints, the Labour Inspectorate has issued a misdemeanor report against weekly Eesti Ekspress for letting children do paper routes in summer. Kids selling the paper during their summer break has been a steady part of the season for years, and reactions to the inspectorate's decision were accordingly passionate.
The Labour Inspectorate's decision was discussed across the Estonian media, with talk radio shows leading with the impending disappearance of the paper boys and girls. A flood of posts on social media following the step suggests Estonians have little understanding for this kind of initiative on the part of any authority.
The paper has hired schoolchildren to do paper routes during summer break for more than 20 years. Plenty of parents registered their kids for the popular summer job this season as well, but received a message from the paper on Monday telling them that this year would be different.
Pending the Labour Inspectorate's final decision in the matter, the program was on hold for the time being, the paper wrote in its message. A sales training specifically for the paper boys and girls was cancelled as well.
Inspectorate: Selling papers isn't light work
Asked for comment by ERR's Estonian news, the inspectorate pointed out that Estonian law imposed strict limits on child labor. And though seven to 12-year-olds were allowed to work distributing advertising materials, expecting them to drag piles of newspapers around and handle money did not correspond with applicable law. On the contrary, children did not actually have the right to handle money in a sales transaction, the inspectorate told ERR.
The law did allow children of the age concerned to work up to three hours a day, but in the case of Ekspress' paper boys, children had been seen selling papers at shopping centers and other busy places around Tallinn all day. An additional objection was that the children had been seen moving around between moving vehicles on several occasions. It was part of the nature of this summer job that children were motivated to sell all of their papers, and get money for it. From a social perspective, this in combination with the fact that legally appropriate working conditions couldn't be guaranteed was not acceptable.
According to the inspectorate, the children and their parents go and buy their load of papers in the morning that they then need to sell in order to even get the money back they invested, though according to the paper, the actual situation is different. Children could take back any leftover papers, and would get paid for those they managed to sell. There was no obligation to sell them all, the paper said.
Ekspress' disagreement with Labour Inspectorate dates back to 2012
In 2012 the inspectorate sent out a notice to several media companies, pointing out that children could not be employed based on the usual employment and service contracts, as limitations needed to be taken into account. The investigation leading up to the current situation was begun in August last year, after the inspectorate had received complaints shortly after the beginning of summer break. The proceeding was delayed for several reasons, including issues connected to hearing witnesses.
The misdemeanor report was finally issued by the inspectorate on May 31 this year, giving Ekspress time to respond until June 15, after which the final decision in the matter will be made on July 3. If the result of the investigation should be a fine, the paper will have 15 days to appeal the decision in court.
The Labour Inspectorate fully expects this to happen, though stating that the dispute is principal in nature, as the fine likely won't go beyond €1,300. CEO of Eesti Ekspress' publisher, Ekspress Meedia's Tõnu Väät, told ERR that the paper boys had never been a business project, but rather an advertising campaign that generated a lot of attention every year. Over the last few years more parents than ever before were interested in signing their kids up for this particular summer job, Väät said.
In a situation where the state was deliberating subsidies to create opportunities for seven to 16-year-olds to get to know what life in the labor market is like, the inspectorate's position was particularly problematic, Väät found. "The kids can come and go as they please, and sell or not sell papers as they want. The Labour Inspectorate has interpreted whatever issues there are to the disadvantage of Ekspress, or rather of the kids," he added.
Väät considers it likely that the company will take the matter to court. Meanwhile, the dispute has triggered an avalanche of childhood memories that eventually only contribute to the feeling that life is finally slowing down, and the quieter summertime has arrived.
Editor: Dario Cavegn