Memo to Victoria: Child labour laws do not qualify as 'red tape'
Josh has scars from his first day on the job at an auto salvage company. While stacking car batteries, acid from a battery spilled, soaking through his clothes. He kept working, lifting tires, carrying car doors. He was cool about it because he was getting paid $10 an hour, more than he had ever earned. Josh was 12.
If you think this is a story about a child working in a developing country, think again. This happened right here in British Columbia. And there are many more stories like Josh's.
We shouldn't be surprised. The experience of child labourers no matter where they live in the world follows the same pattern - hard work, low wages and conditions that are not safe for a child. Children simply do not have the knowledge or experience they need to be safe in many workplaces. They need laws to protect them. We used to have such laws in B.C.
In 2003, amendments to the Employment Standards Act lowered the age to start work to 12 and dele-gated all responsibility for deciding on the appropriateness of a job to parents. One parent signing a letter of permission is all that a child 12 to 14 needs to engage in almost any type of work. And it doesn't matter if the parent, or another relative, is the employer; or if the parent is unemployed or unable to work and the child's wages are used to help support the family.
Parents do not intentionally put their children in harm's way, but when it comes to making a decision about whether a 12-to 14-year-old should go to work, the interests of a parent and child are not always aligned.
The 2003 law replaced a legal requirement that an employer obtain a permit from the Employment Standards Branch before hiring a child under 15. The permit recognized that there might be exceptional circum-stances when a child under 15 could be employed - child actors are an example - but mostly it was meant to enforce the rule that children should not be employed before 15.
Sadly for B.C. children, the provincial government chose to characterize the permit system as "red tape" that made hiring a child under 15 expensive and onerous, rather than what it was - the law against child labour.
Since 1973, 161 countries have ratified the International Labour Organization declaration establishing 15 as the minimum age for entry into employment. An even higher standard is expected from countries with compulsory schooling beyond age 15. Canada has not ratified this convention.
Child labour laws do not prohibit children from gaining any type of work experience - learning job skills is an important part of growing up - but they can and should regulate what kind of work is appropriate and how many hours are reasonable, depending on the age of the child. The idea is for young workers to gain experience in environments with fewer known hazards and in a manner that does not jeopardize their education.
The permit system B.C. had before 2003 was not perfect, but abandoning all effective regulation was not an improvement. We can look to some other Canadian provinces to find simple and effective alternatives.
First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition is conducting a study supported by the Law Foundation of B.C. documenting the experiences of child workers in B.C. Stories such as Josh's are our primary research tool, as statistics are scarce. Only WorkSafeBC can provide any data based on the birth date of accepted injury claimants and these tell us only that children in B.C. are getting injured at work. No one knows how many children are working or what kinds of work they are doing.
First Call is inviting young people to share their work experiences through an online survey at "nochildlabour. org." There are separate surveys for parents and educators, too. Young people interested in attending a focus group or being interviewed about their work experience are invited to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 12 is World Day Against Child Labour.
Adrienne Montani, provincial coordinator of First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition., and Catherine Evans, a lawyer and member of the child labour project advisory committee.