08/07/2014 08:00 EDT | Updated 10/07/2014 05:59 EDT

Saskatchewan farmers cry foul over child labour investigation

The owners of a farm in east-central Saskatchewan say they're shocked they are being investigated by the province after it received a complaint about minors working in the family's processing business.

"I was flabbergasted," Janeen Covlin told CBC News about the investigation by the Occupational Health and Safety Division (OHS). "Our whole farm vision was to include our kids."

An OHS officer arrived at her farm near Endeavour on Tuesday.

Cool Springs Ranch and Butchery raises, butchers and sells free-range chickens.

The Covlins' eldest children Kate, 10, and Emma, 8, are involved in every step of the operation, from pasture to fork.

Farm kids in traditional farming operations are exempt from most labour laws in Saskatchewan, excluding basic prohibitions from operating motorized farm equipment and handling dangerous chemicals.

However, Covlin said the OHS officer informed her that her children cannot work inside the family's small poultry processing plant.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act prohibits workers under the age of 16 from working in a meat, fish or poultry production facility.

"To us, the processing plant is just one middle step in our whole chain from the farmer to the consumer, and the children are involved in every part of it," Covlin said.

Covlin gave CBC News a tour of the building that she describes as "a little butcher shop on the farm," where everything is done manually, unlike a high-tech processing plant with mechanized machines.

Kate and Emma Covlin donned hairnets and aprons to demonstrate their chores of weighing and vacuum bagging the chicken.

"We're trying to stay in something low-tech and kid-friendly, deliberately. We want a family-friendly farm," Covlin said.

Investigation checking if kids are 'employees'

When CBC News followed up with the province regarding this case, the OHS's top lawyer indicated an investigation would need to determine whether the children are classified as "employees."

Director of legal affairs Joel Bender said the legislation only applies to an employer-worker relationship.

"If the farming operation was engaged, for example, in processing of meat, fish or poultry, that wouldn't be permitted if the young person was a 'worker' as defined by our legislation," said Bender.

While the Covlins don't pay their young children a wage, Saskatchewan's Employment Act states that an employee can also include "a person whom an employer permits, directly or indirectly, to perform work or services normally performed by an employee."

The Covlins also frequently employ local teenagers under age 16 in their butcher shop.

Upon learning the rules Tuesday, the Covlins acknowledged they are violating the province's labour laws by employing those teenagers.

The investigation will be complete next week, but Covlin plans to challenge any limitations on her own children's ability to be part of the family farm.

"Farm kids used to have a good reputation for good work ethic, and that's what I would like for my own kids," said Covlin.