September 13, 2010

Canada's Lagging Child Labour Laws

With some of the lowest age thresholds for paid employment in the world, Canada has a lot of growing up to do when it comes to child labour legislation.

Angelo DiCaro

Last week, thousands of young Canadians traded in their supermarket smocks, dusty brooms, and store greeter vests as they headed back into the classroom.

But for many, these part-time jobs will continue. In fact, the burden of balancing work and school life is present at an increasingly younger age – in some cases, shockingly young.

British Columbia, for example, gained international notoriety in 2003 for dropping its minimum age of work to 12 years old (i.e. Grade 8 students) – one of the lowest age thresholds for paid employment in the world. In some cases even lower than in developing countries.

Shortly after, the province of Alberta made similar changes, albeit with stronger legislated restrictions attached. Most other provinces have set the bar as low as 14 years.

The stress borne on young Canadians to balance work and school life, especially those in elementary school, can be damaging. For younger workers, the risk of injury and death in the workplace is high. Very few are aware of their employment rights on the job.

Not many know that Canada is an international laggard on child labour laws. One might think that given our country’s vast wealth and decent standard of living, a debate around child labour would be a non-starter.

In fact, Canada is one of only 29 countries that have failed to sign on to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 138 (Minimum Age Convention), which outlines basic child labour standards and thresholds for the minimum age of work.

Convention 138 is one of eight core international labour conventions, aimed at protecting the fundamental rights of workers globally. C138, established in 1973, is an amalgamation of prior conventions on the topic. Among other items, it requires all countries to peg minimum age laws at a level that is no less than the age of compulsory schooling, with few exceptions.

This is a common sense approach to regulating the minimum age of work. It recognizes the important role education plays in developing young people.

It also implicitly acknowledges the need to protect young workers from injury while on the job. Countless studies have shown that risk of workplace injury and death rises for younger workers.

Unfortunately, this is something Canada has not yet fully grasped.

A 2004 tripartite workshop entitled the Minimum Age of Admission to Employment in Canada and International Standards concluded that substantial legislative changes are required in all jurisdictions. A more recent research report prepared by the Canadian Labour Congress further validated those conclusions, noting that every Canadian jurisdiction that oversees labour standards is in breach of C138.

Human Resources and Social Development Canada rightly points out that minimum age laws across the country are complemented by a range of additional regulations aimed at preventing the exploitation of children and protecting against unsafe working conditions. All jurisdictions in Canada attach specific caveats to their minimum age laws – many aimed at maintaining the primacy and integrity of schooling.

However, it seems in Canada scoring a weekly paycheque is equally as important as scoring good grades on a report card.

There is no good reason why child labour laws in Canada should be on the slide. If we believe the rhetoric about the importance of building a knowledge economy, how can we then justify policies that undercut the integrity of education and contribute to the exploitation of young people?

Sadly, this discussion has evolved well beyond the more traditional paper route and baby-sitting gigs most associated with child workers. Today, our country’s youngest workers are landing dead-end jobs in the broader retail, hospitality, and food service sectors. This simply cannot go on unchecked.

Canada has been given until 2020 to fully comply with the eight core labour conventions under the ILO, including C138. Full compliance requires each of Canada’s provinces and territories to amend existing minimum age laws. Certainly this won’t happen overnight, but it is a goal that is well within our reach and that will benefit our society for years to come.

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