Do you want fries with that childhood?

B.C.’s new child-labour law lowers the bar

Say “child labour” and people assume you’re talking about China or Pakistan, not Canada. But our kids are not immune to the risks of child labour, least of all in British Columbia. Under Premier Gordon Campbell’s government, B.C. has legislated the lowest start age for employment in North America. It’s 12.

At the age of 12, most students are finishing Grade 6.

“At that age I was concerned about taking the bus, let alone going to work,” recalls Ryan Semiao, a Grade 12 student at Templeton Secondary in Vancouver.

Ryan’s classmate Diana Tso, 17, works part-time at a fast-food restaurant. “I have a sister who is 12, and I can’t imagine her working there. It’s not safe,” she says. Using sharp knives and cooking fries in boiling oil is challenging enough, but dealing with customers can be even scarier.

“We’ve been robbed a few times, and I’ve got co-workers who have been punched,” Diana says. “One night I was working the drive-thru and a customer drove up to rob us. I followed all the procedures while he pointed a gun right at me. Our manager was only 18 then. We have 15-year-olds on the job with us too.”

Under the B.C. Liberals’ Bill 37, which came into effect in December, employers no longer need permits from the Employment Standards Branch to hire 12- to 15-year-olds. They no longer need worry about regulations governing hours of work; they are free to schedule teens for evening or night shifts. They no longer need agreement from school counsellors that work won’t negatively impact academic achievement.

Employers only need to get a letter from a parent saying it’s okay for their child to take that job. If mom and dad disagree with one another, that’s no problem. Only the signature of one parent or guardian is needed.

In cases where the government is the child’s guardian, who will decide? In families from countries where child labour is common, how can parents assess job risk, especially if they don’t speak English?

Labour Minister Graham Bruce defends Bill 37, saying it protects young workers starting their first jobs. He says the new rules “mirror the conditions that used to be found in child employment permits issued by the Employment Standards Branch.” However, he says, thousands of employers never bothered applying for the permits, and those who did were almost always approved.

The Employment Standards Branch no longer has the mandate to regulate child employment, or the capacity to monitor workplaces. The ESB now operates on a “complaint-driven” basis only. Employers self-regulate and the onus is on parents to lodge formal complaints to enforce protection for their kids at work.

The Campbell government has no evidence to convince Helesia Luke that deregulation won’t hurt the health and safety of young workers. Co-author of a report released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, “Who’s Looking Out for Our Kids? Deregulating Child Labour Law in British Columbia,” Luke predicts the complaint-driven model “will ensure that accidents and abuse will inform government of obvious hazards after the fact.”

She notes that, as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Canada is bound to uphold international law. “B.C. is moving in the opposite direction to Canada’s stated goals with respect to children’s rights,” Luke says.

Even as they deregulate child labour, the B.C. Liberals are also reducing the minimum wage. For the first 500 hours on the job, young people now earn a “training wage” of $6 per hour, $2 below minimum wage.

“These changes are clearly designed to benefit employers, not students,” says Neil Worboys, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation. “They give business access to a pool of young, inexperienced workers who cannot command a decent wage and who will be less likely to stand up for their rights.”

It’s no coincidence that these labour law changes are being introduced just as the Liberal funding freeze has caused some school boards to cut the school week down to four days. “They’re taking away 20 per cent of students’ class time and opening up the market for more kids to be competing for McJobs,” Worboys says.

Soon after Bill 37 was passed, I wrote to the Child and Youth Officer for the province of B.C. and asked her position on the changes. Fortunately for young people, Jane Morley, believes that learning — not earning — is their primary work.

“Any legislation that distracts children as young as 12 from the important business of being educated is a concern to me. We have a tendency in our society to create a climate in which children are not given enough time to be children; this is especially true for vulnerable children,” Morley wrote. “I welcome anyone who has evidence of a negative effect of this deregulation on children and youth to bring it to the attention of my office.”

Surely that’s the least we can do. While we’re at it, let’s write to Premier Campbell and urge the repeal of this odious legislation.

Nancy Knickerbocker is a staff writer and media relations officer for the B.C. Teachers’ Federation. She can be reached at [email protected].

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