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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 5, April 2004

Globalization comes home to roost: Child labour in Campbell’s B.C.

by Gina Whitfield

Bill 37, the child labour legislation adopted by the B.C. Liberals, has sent a clear message to teenage workers across the province: You have been made redundant; there are now new, more easily abused workers in town; no matter how close you thought you were to completing your 500 training-waged hours, the bottom just got lower. Thanks to Minister of Labour Graham Bruce and Gordon Campbell’s B.C. Liberals’ bringing in the most regressive child labour bill in North America, 12-year-old children can now work, and, hell, they might not even think that six bucks sucks.

The new legislation is a clear attack on all working people, as the government encourages a "race to the bottom," complete with the economic exploitation of children. Bill 37 allows for children as young as 12 to work in British Columbia. Children can be employed in any occupation with almost no legal distinction between them and adult workers. As early as Grade 6, children can work in dangerous or physically intensive conditions in restaurants, door-to-door sales, industry, and agriculture.

B.C. and Ralph Klein’s Alberta are the only Canadian provinces that allow 12-year-olds to work. But B.C. trumps all provinces by having the longest work days and longest work weeks for children. When in school, child workers can work 20 hours a week when attending school five days a week. In communities where school boards have implemented "flexible" four-day school weeks—to acommodate educational funding cuts—children can work up to 27 hours per week. That weekday once spent at school can now be spent at the mill, learning the hard knocks of global capitalism. There is precious little regulatory protection regarding, for instance, early morning shift work, work during school hours, or graveyard-shift work. Even in the libertarian Alberta, Klein lets the kids off at 9:00 p.m.

In 2002, Canada signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, citing the responsibility of the state to protect children from economic exploitation and from working in conditions that could be hazardous to their health or detrimental to their education. Bill 37 disregards the UN convention and shifts the responsibility for the protection of child workers from the government and the employer to the parent, who is now responsible for making sure the child’s workplace is safe. This process of liberalization and deregulation of employment standards and labour codes is familiar to workers in the Third World, where children of the working class and the poor are used to produce profit for capital. In B.C., the results will be similar, producing an even larger class divide and bringing the chickens of globalization home to roost, so to speak.

Bill 37 is part of a wide-ranging attack on working-class and low-income families in B.C, including the contracting out of union jobs; cuts to health, education, social housing; and rent deregulation. And a glaring lack of affordable childcare, coupled with welfare cuts, will force the poorest families in British Columbia to send their children to work. As the 3:00 p.m. bell rings at elementary schools, kids in Point Grey will pile into SUVs heading for soccer or violin lessons, while kids in Surrey-Guildford will pile into school buses, not headed for home but for a little "homework" in the fields, learning about Canadian multiculturalism and equality. Sadly, the parents of the latter will be held morally responsible by the corporate apologists of this government when, not if, their children are injured or killed in the workplace or when being overworked causes them to drop out of school.

The child labour bill is so regressive that not even the strongest champions of free enterprise and union bashing wanted to take credit for it. The B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, the Retail Council of Canada, and the Business Council of B.C. have all stated that they were not actively campaigning for the use of child labour. Who was "actively campaigning"? Well, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce said that the ability to use the labour of children under 15 was on their "wish list." Gordon Campbell, apparently, is a genie who grants more than three wishes, as long as those doing the wishing donate to the Liberal Party. The B.C. Agricultural Council was also wishing hard for the legislation, and lobbying even harder.

The B.C. Agricultural Council—whose mandate is to strengthen the competitive nature and increase the profits for B.C. agriculture—claims that some British Columbian products, particularly fruits and berries, are more profitable if they are subsidized by cheap labour. The farming industry in British Columbia already has one of the most exploited and casual work forces in the country, made up primarily of immigrants from South Asia and migrant farm labour. Together with Bill 37, the government also entirely removed farm labour from labour code protection. Most farm workers already do piece work and do not make minimum wage, receive overtime pay, benefits, or holidays. That wage slavery has now been codified by the B.C. Liberals. The council had been lobbying the Campbell government to allow for the import of temporary workers from Mexico, who could be more easily abused and economically exploited. Bruce, however, opted to further impoverish the current workforce and further open up the fields to child labour. Bill 37 was, above all, a gift to big agro-business in this province.

Globally, international capital has always reaped the profits of child labour. We should not be too surprised that neo-liberal imperialist globalization (a.k.a. capitalism) is hitting the poorest here at home. This is one element of the "race to the bottom," as governments facilitate corporate exploitation of workers and natural resources throughout the world.

The child labour legislation of Gordon Campbell’s government is an issue around which to organize as part of the global movement for social justice. And to avoid simple moralizing about "the children," we must also demand jobs with justice for adults, and quality, free education for children.

Gina Whitfield works with Free Campbell’s Kids: The Campaign To End Legislated Child Labour in B.C.

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