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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 3, January/February 2004

B.C.’s workforce is getting much younger

by Helesia Luke, Rev. Bob Korth, and Graeme Moore

On December 14, 2003, new labour regulations came into force that position British Columbia as the most child-labour-friendly jurisdiction in North America.

In a move resembling a chapter from Dickens’s Scrooge, the provincial government has reduced the standard for child protection and dropped B.C.’s work-start age from 15 years to 12. Under new legislation, a child as young as 12 may wind up selling you a loaf of bread at 2:00 a.m. in your local convenience store, picking up debris on a construction site, or hawking goods door to door—all as government willfully turns a blind eye.

At a time when more and more families are struggling with unemployment and poverty, government is making it easier to hire children. The government’s claim that mandatory fines on employers will protect kids fails to recognize the intense financial pressures on B.C. families. Encouraging child labour with less government oversight is a recipe for disaster.

Under the previous system, an employer was required to apply to the Employment Standards Branch director for a permit to hire a child under the age of 15. That process allowed branch employees to conduct worksite inspections and place restrictions on the type and hours of work. The branch would consider whether or not potential employment opportunities would have a negative impact on the child’s education, health, or safety.

Contrary to the minister of labour’s claims, branch officers frequently declined permit applications or imposed conditions on employers before issuing permits.

In addition, parental consent and school consent were required before a child under 15 could legally work. Through the permitting process, government had a direct role to play in protecting children and determining what work opportunities were safe and appropriate. In doing so, government created a cautionary environment where children’s rights were given priority over work.

In defence of lowering child labour standards, Minister Graham Bruce claims that many employers were breaking the law and hiring children under 15 without a permit anyway. That explanation poses questionable logic: Many motorists disobey stop signs. Is removing stop signs the solution?

The changes end 50 years of direct government oversight of children in the workplace. Now, employers are required only to obtain a parent’s consent; that’s a parent—only one, to hire a child between the ages of 12 and 15. It’s the parent’s responsibility, Bruce claims, to make sure that work is right for the child. While most parents would never knowingly put their child in harm’s way, most parents do not have access to in-depth knowledge and training to assess worksite safety.

A startling example of this occurred several years ago when an employment officer visited a butcher shop to assess whether job-related tasks were safe for a young teenage boy. On the site, the officer discovered that while the boy could easily enter the walk-in-freezer, he was not strong enough to operate the internal lever to exit the freezer. In that instance the boy’s parents had already consented to his employment—highlighting the fact that many well-intentioned parents simply don’t know what questions to ask and how to ensure that their child is doing tasks suitable to ability and maturity.

Now, B.C. parents will be on their own when it comes to protecting their child’s best interests in the workplace. Minister Bruce asserts that new regulations protect children. It is hard to imagine that any reasonable person would interpret the regulations as protections. Children, between 12 and 15, can work up to four hours on a school day. When added to school time, that turns into a 10-hour workday before homework or extra activities. On non-school days, children can work seven hours. In some circumstances, the branch may waive those limits. Educators have been removed from the process, and children do not need permission from school authorities to work. Even more troubling: No occupations are prohibited under the new system. Unlike Alberta’s and Washington’s, B.C.’s regulations do not list jobs that are obviously unsuitable for developing children, including operating machinery or tasks that require strength or mature judgment.

Bill 37, the legislation behind this, was enacted without consulting the many organizations and individuals who expressed serious concerns about the dangers of loosening restrictions on hiring children. While the rest of the world is implementing United Nations’ recommendations for more restrictions on child labour, B.C. is marching in the opposite direction.

Bill 37 puts children at risk as never before. It violates the government’s responsibility to its younger citizens and puts its own agenda of deregulation before the health and safety of the most vulnerable members in our society.

For more information on the new regulations, visit the BCTF web site: bctf.ca/social/ChildLabour.

Helesia Luke, Rev. Bob Korth, and Graeme Moore are members of the coalition against child labour.

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