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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 2, November/December 2003

The B.C. child labour law

by Mark Thompson

The government recently introduced amendments to the Employment Standards Act that effectively lower the minimum age for employment from 15 to 12 years.

The act currently forbids employment of children under the age of 15 without the permission of the director of the Employment Standards Branch. The director sets the conditions of employment for each child, including the consent of the child’s parent and school if work is during the school year, hours of work, and other conditions of employment. Special and very protective regulations exist for child performers in the film and television industries. A handful of individual employers also have closely controlled permits to hire children. In 2001, approximately 400 child-labour permits were issued, about 50 for work at the Pacific National Exhibition.

The government proposes to permit any child between 12 and 15 years of age to work with the consent of his or her parent. The director may establish conditions for employment of children for industries or classes of industries, thereby removing the individual attention to the child. The Employment Standards Act is enforced through a complaint, followed by an investigation. The number of staff to receive and investigate complaints is being reduced by 40%, further undermining the protection of children.

The amendments will allow employers to employ children under 15 years of age with only limited supervision. The government has presented no rationale to justify its regressive policy, other than "cutting red tape."

The proposed changes dishonour Canada. Since the 1990s, this country has been an international leader in efforts to ban child labour in less-developed regions of the world. Only last year, the United Nations dedicated a special session to children, highlighting the dangers of child labour. Non-governmental organizations are urging Canadian companies to refuse to purchase goods made by children overseas. Should they impose boycotts on British Columbia products made by children?

Any parent or teacher knows that children are vulnerable when they enter the labour market. They seldom know their legal rights, and they have few skills to command a high wage. They face special hazards. Children do not have the attention span adults do, and they risk accident or injury at work sites designed for adults. The lure of income may cause them to neglect their education. When children under 15 are employed, they compete with older teenagers or young adults who are attempting to gain job skills and extra income. This added pool of inexperienced workers especially hurts older teenagers when all workers receive a sub-minimum wage for their first 500 hours of employment. Parents care for the well being of their children, but they should not be expected to verify the working conditions of 12-year-olds.

The social development and education of children should be of paramount concern to society in British Columbia. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, ratified by Canada and virtually every country in the world, establishes this principle. The present Employment Standard policy enables the director to tailor working conditions to the need of the child in those very limited cases when work is necessary or appropriate. Parents should be involved in decisions about the work of their children, but society should put the needs of the children first.

The present standards of protection for children should be maintained. British Columbia should not be a society where elementary school pupils are encouraged to choose between a low-wage job and their education.

Mark Thompson, UBC professor, served as commissioner of the 1994 report "Rights and Responsibilities in a Changing Workplace: A Review of Employment Standards in British Columbia."

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