BC Federationist www.bcfederationist.com
Young Workers in Action – Stephen Von Sychowski
For most British Columbians the phrase “child labour” conjures up images of time long past or, perhaps, of children slaving away on the plantations and sweat shops of the global south. But the unfortunate truth is that child labour is a reality right here, right now, in our own country and in our own province.
Canada is one of less than 30 countries who have failed to ratify International Labour Organization (ILO) convention C138 on Child Labour. Others include Burma, India, Iran, and Mexico. The convention sets the minimum working age at 15, or 13 for light work. For dangerous work, the convention set the minimum age at 18 under most conditions.
Federal and Provincial legislation across Canada fails to meet these meager benchmarks. The employment of children under Federal law is legal so long as it fits the guidelines laid out in the existing labour standards.
Here in BC, we have the dubious distinction of having the worst child labour laws in the country. Surveys gathered by the Employee Action & Rights Network in 2010 and 2011 indicated a low level of knowledge amongst British Columbians about the fact that in our province children can work at 12 years of age. And not on paper routes or babysitting gigs, but in factories, mills, restaurants, shops, warehouses, and any number of other potentially dangerous work environments.
In virtually any workplace, at virtually any time of the day, a child under the age of 15 can be employed with permission granted simply based on a letter from a parent or guardian and with no verification process or safeguards in place.
What’s worse is that BC has actually gone backwards in terms of its child labour protections. These new regulations replaced much stronger, more effective protections in 2003 as part of the Liberal governments slash and burn of the Employment Standards Act. The results are both clear and sad. The Workers Compensation Board (WCB) saw a ten-fold increase in the number of workplace injuries amongst children aged 12-14 from 2004-2008.
Children are less likely than adults to be aware of, or ask questions about, their rights on the job whether they are with regards to Employment Standards or workplace safety. They are easy prey for unscrupulous employers looking to cut corners in order to make an extra buck.
The only good news is that people are starting to stand up against the backwards practice of employing child labour in our province and our country. For several years the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), especially its Young Workers Advisory Committee, has been running the Canadian’s Opposed to Child Labour campaign in order to put pressure on government to adopt ILO convention C138.
Here in BC, a number of young workers have become involved in the No Child Labour in BC campaign initiated by First Call, and the campaign was recently endorsed by the BC Federation of Labour on the suggestion of the Young Workers Committee.
The Make Work Better campaign, soon to be launched by the Employee Action & Rights Network (EARN), will also include a demand to increase the minimum working age to 15.
C138 prohibits children taking part in any work that may “jeopardize children’s physical, mental or moral heath, safety or morals”. It’s pretty tough to disagree with that. Yet we have a government that has dismantled the protections that once were in place. Look up the campaigns of the CLC, EARN, and First Call, and see how you can help demand an end to child labour in BC.
Stephen Von Sychowski is the alternate vice president for Youth of the Canadian Labour Congress, the chair of the B.C. Federation of Labour’s young worker committee and an executive board member of COPE 378