||Volume 17, Number 1, September 2004
Labouring under an illusion
by Marian Dodds
Iwill never forget their "Madam, Madam, cigarette, madam," as several young boys pursued me in Sierra Leone in West Africa a decade ago, hoping I would buy an American cigarette from them. One cigarette at a time, these 9- and 10-year-olds were working to survive, likely unaware of their role as victims of the worldwide tobacco industry and its lust for new markets. Child labour was calling out to me.
For much of my career, I have taught and encouraged colleagues to teach global education to raise awareness about topics such as child labour and to support actions to decrease it in the developing world. I was under the illusion that child labour is something that we do not condone in Canada. I never dreamt I would have to fight child labour here. With Bill 37, the B.C. government has lowered the age at which children can work to 12 and has lifted restrictions that would protect them if they do work. The government has put our youth at greater risk for injury, exploitation, dropping out of school, and a life of poverty in the long run. I am disheartened to think that we now have the lowest age in all of North America at which employers can hire children.
Realistically, I do not expect that masses of youth in B.C. will go off to work 20 hours a week during school months and spend 35 hours a week working in the holidays as a result of this legislation. I am not talking here about paper routes, child minding, mowing the lawn, working at summer day camps for kids, volunteering at community centres, and so forth. I agree that those are generally good opportunities for youth to learn to be responsible, to contribute to their community, and to earn some pocket money for themselves. What concerns me is that this legislation opens the door wide for unscrupulous employers and naive and/or desperate parents to use children in ways that have long-term negative effects for those children and for our society.
As a school counsellor, I want my students to be successful. Whether counselling them about school matters, career choices, personal problems, or post-secondary opportunities, my overarching goal is supporting each one to reach her or his potential as a healthy and socially responsible individual. In speaking to colleagues at my school, to counsellors in other Vancouver schools and to students, I found that, once people became aware of this legislation, they had serious reservations about it.
What do young people need in order to develop into healthy, socially responsible adults? And how might the changes to the legislation affect the outcome?
Social/emotional health Some may argue that work can increase self-esteem and build a sense of responsibility. In fact, several of the youth I spoke to mentioned this. That is one reason schools encourage volunteer work at the younger grades and work experience at Grade 11 and 12. The difference is that these are well-supervised and appropriate places for young people to gain experience. I would question the emotional/social development that might occur on a job where youth may be harassed or expected to work longer shifts than they want in order to keep their jobs.
The assumption that parents are able to ensure that the workplace is safe is not always reasonable. As a counsellor, I’ve heard how hard it is for parents to supervise TV, video, and Internet activities at home. The workplace further removes their ability to supervise the activities of their children. We all know that these are the years of limit testing by youth and that their parents are not always aware of what they are up to.
- How will the parents be able to keep track of every hour worked and what they are doing on the way to and from work?
- How might work affect a 12-year-old emotionally in the long term?
- Stress is a major concern for young people as they struggle to balance very busy lives and to cope with less than ideal home lives in some circumstances. The most at-risk youth may also be the most likely to see working as an option to escape problems at home. What will the long-term consequences be for her or his emotional health?
- Might such young workers become world weary, resentful, "adultified," depressed?
Exposure to negative adult/peer behaviour
- Drugs (including cigarettes) and alcohol may be offered.
- Sexual harassment may occur. What about the power imbalance between the supervisor and the employee?
- What life lesson will young workers learn if they witness dishonesty and disrespectful behaviours from their supervisors?
- How many operations in sales and service may be run by youth? What peer culture might develop in such circumstances? Imagine a night shift at a fast food restaurant with a 16-year-old supervisor and a crew of 12- to 14-year-olds, responsible for handling money and kitchen equipment.
Effect on family life
- Where is the time for the social support of the family?
- What does this teach about the priorities we have?
- What will young workers miss out on at home?
- What hobbies, sports, and extra-curricular activities will the young workers lack the time to pursue?
"This is so disgusting I can hardly believe it. This will further break down the family. It seriously puts kids at risk and will affect their physical, mental well being." – school counsellor
Intellectual development A huge challenge at this age is to find enough time to complete schoolwork and balance all the rest of their lives. And, face it; schoolwork may not be the priority! With the additional time taken up by working, what quality of homework and test preparation will result? No wonder research shows that working youth are more likely to drop out of school.
Bottom line Is there enough time for a 12- to 14-year-old to do all the tasks required and work 20 hours a week? Not likely. What will be sacrificed for the money earned?
Effect on school success rates
- Will young workers be more likely to drop out of school?
- How will there be adequate time for homework?
- Will grades drop, thus disqualifying the young workers for financial awards and scholarships that would enable them to go on to post-secondary education?
- We know that the more education one has, the more one will earn.
"I would rarely recommend 20 hours/week of work for a senior student. They would have to be super-organized individuals to accomplish this and maintain their grades and place in the community."– school counsellor
Physical health and safety
- Will children have time for adequate sleep? Teens need more sleep than adults, up to nine hours a night.
- Will they be eating properly and having time for physical fitness?
- How safe will they be?
- Youth are injured more often on the job.
- The legislation does not restrict potentially dangerous workplaces.
- How safe is it to work at night, supervised by others who may be not much older?
- Away from parental supervision, what influences may the young worker be exposed to?
- Bill 37 makes the parent responsible for ensuring a safe workplace. Some parents may be unable to speak English and may be unfamiliar with workplace safety standards. In particular new immigrants may be unaware of Canadian standards and rights and could be victims of exploitation.
- Brain-development research shows that the last part of the brain to develop is the pre-frontal cortex, where "executive functions" occur (including planning, setting priorities, suppressing impulses, weighing consequences of one’s actions). How might this affect safety on the job?
- Would young workers have the ability to speak out about unfair working conditions?
- Would they be able to stand up to an abusive customer?
- Would they be able to deal with a robber/flasher, etc.?
- Is it acceptable to expect children/youth to take on the responsibilities of an adult?
Potential for exploitation
- Since the training wage is lower for the first 500 hours, what will stop employers from bringing in new 12-year-old recruits every 500 hours to keep their costs down? How many 13-year-olds are going to insist on a raise after they have worked 500 hours?
- Youth may be pressured by parents to work to contribute to family income.
"Even 16-year-olds have trouble not being exploited in the work place. This could result in sexual harassment, physical abuse, and financial exploitation. Didn’t we do this already? Wasn’t it called the Industrial Revolution?" – school counsellor
What kind of message does this send about our society? "It is Un-Canadian—Canadian values do not include child labour but do include education. Many of our students live in poverty and might be forced to work. This might mean that school would be gone. For children under 15, their job is school, not work. Our laws require school attendance." – school counsellor
- Are children the property of their parents?
- What message does this send to developing countries struggling to raise their standards and looking to us for guidelines?
- How will B.C. look in the eyes of the world through the International Labour Organization (which has 15 as the minimum age for work) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child?
Resources "Who’s looking out for our kids? Deregulating child labour law in BC." CCPA brief, go to www.policyalternatives.ca
Marian Dodds an assistant director in the BCTF’s Professional and Social Issues Division is on leave from her counselling position with the Vancouver School District.
Child labour polling results
More than 70% of British Columbians oppose the B.C. Liberal changes to the labour laws to allow employers to hire children as young as 12 years of age. People over 55 had the strongest negative reaction to the change, with 49.8% "very negative," 28% "negative" for a total negative of 77.8%.
The question asked was:
"The B.C. government recently changed the law to allow employers to hire children as young as 12 with a note from a parent. While school-aged children are limited to working 20 hours a week during weeks that schools are in session, there are no other special regulations, such as inspections of the work sites or special restrictions on the nature of the work. Overall, do you view this legislation as: very positive, positive, negative, very negative, don’t know?"
The phone poll was conducted by Mustel Group between July 2 to 6, 2004, and is accurate +/-4.4 per cent, 95% of the time.