Story: City children and youth

Page 1. Working children

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Early arrivals

The companies that colonised New Zealand valued families with children, because they were more stable, and more likely to put down roots than single people. In 1845, children and adolescents (aged 19 and under) made up 52% of Wellington’s European population (Māori were not counted). In 2006 the total figure was 25%, reflecting the wider age distribution that occurs as cities mature.

Definitions of children and youth

From the late 19th century a child was designated a youth at the age of 12 – the official school-leaving age from 1877 to 1944. In 2009 the Ministry of Youth Development promoted the interests of young people aged from 12 to 24.

Child labour

Full-time work

In colonial cities young people’s wages were an important addition to household budgets. Until 1873 there were few restrictions on their labour. Adolescent girls, in particular, worked as live-in domestic staff – mainly cleaning, cooking and childcare – in the homes of city élites. Hours could be long, and exploitation (sometimes sexual) by employers was a risk. Consequently factory, retail, and office work held more appeal. Jobs in these sectors included laundering clothes, finishing shoes, packaging hosiery, serving customers, running messages and clerical work.

Office work had the highest social status. It usually required further training – in typing and bookkeeping – at secondary schools. This was often too expensive for working-class children, who mostly entered factory work at the end of their compulsory primary schooling.

Improving conditions

From 1873 the government began to regulate factory work: child workers had to be over 10, could work no more than an eight-hour day, and were banned from night shifts. In 1877 compulsory primary education to age 12 raised the minimum age of child workers. Under the Factories Act 1891, workers under 16 had to be certified fit for factory work and could only work in non-noxious areas. These interventions significantly improved children’s working conditions.

Overworked students

In 1909 a headmaster of a Dunedin primary school expressed alarm that boys who had done well in standard four were failing standard five. ‘On making enquiries, I find eight boys working ten and ten and half hours daily. Some get up at 3:30 o’clock to work milk carts. These children are quite listless at school.’1 The principal decided he couldn’t hold his teachers responsible for the boys’ educational advancement – or lack of it.

Part-time work

Even with compulsory schooling, children’s wages were important in poorer city households – and remained so into the 2000s. In the 1920s nearly one-third of standard four and five (year six and seven) boys of an inner-city Wellington primary school were in paid employment. They delivered milk in the morning, newspapers after school, and a range of other goods.

Part-time work also provided money for buying toys, from Meccano sets and hula hoops in the 1950s to skateboards and computer games in the 2000s. Since the late 20th century the nature of work has changed. While babysitting continued to offer steady employment, home milk delivery no longer existed, and a decline in metropolitan newspapers led to fewer paper rounds. These jobs have largely been replaced by retailing and service work, such as stocking supermarket shelves, staffing checkouts and flipping hamburgers.

Undersized pay

In 2005 the Unite union started a campaign to ‘super-size my pay’ for fast-food outlet staff – a satirical reference to super-sized portions of fast food. In Auckland, teenage KFC workers struck in support of their claim. Fifteen-year-old Sam Van Der Kolk said youth rates meant he had to work long shifts to make enough money: ‘I have worked until 4am before, and then I have school the next day.’2 The teenagers thought it unfair that they were paid less than those over 18 for the same work. The campaign succeeded in raising their pay.

Youth rates

Low-paying, low-prestige jobs with few benefits became widely known as ‘McJobs’ after the fast-food chain McDonald’s. A minimum wage had been set for workers aged 20 and over in 1983, and a minimum wage for 16–19-year-olds was introduced in 1994. Set at 60% of the adult rate, it became known as youth rates. In 2001 the government abolished youth rates for those over 18, and in 2008 ended them altogether. However, in 2013 the National-led government reintroduced youth rates. Some workers aged 16–17 could be paid 20% less than the minimum wage, as could workers aged 18–19 who had been on a welfare benefit for six months.

There was no minimum age for employment, but children under 16 were not permitted to work during school hours.


Parents valued their children’s labour. Even young children could help with household chores. In the colonial period these included gardening, feeding hens, chopping firewood or filling coal buckets, dusting furniture, cooking, and minding siblings. In the early 2000s chores included stacking dishwashers, vacuuming floors, mowing lawns, and hanging out or folding washing. Many children received pocket money for completing chores, to buy sweets and other small items. Pocket money usually stopped when children entered paid work.

  1. Evening Post, 22 July 1909, p. 10. Back
  2. ‘New Zealand: KFC workers strike against youth wages.’ Green Left Weekly, 7 December 2005, (last accessed 23 February 2009). Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'City children and youth - Working children', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 July 2022)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010