B.C. children need protection from workplace

On Friday, First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition submitted an open letter to Labour Minister Harry Bains, calling on him to table legislation during the upcoming legislative session aimed at protecting children and youth from employment-related injury and exploitation.

In British Columbia, children as young as 12 years old can legally work at almost any job or task.

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We're not talking about babysitting or paper routes: 12-year-olds can work in most industries, the most common being food services and accommodation, but many are working in construction, manufacturing and resource-based jobs. We know where they are working, not because the Employment Standards Branch is monitoring, but because data tell us this is where they are getting injured.

When the Employment Standards Act was changed in 2003, B.C. became the only province that does not place legal restrictions on the occupations, tasks or time of day a child can work.

According to data obtained by First Call, every year over the past decade, children under 15 were injured on the job seriously enough for WorkSafe B.C. to pay out millions of dollars in injury claims. In some cases, children have sustained life-altering injuries.

Over that same period, more than 2,000 children under the age of 15 claimed work-related health-care costs.

In 2016, Canada ratified the International Labour Organization's Convention 138, agreeing to set the minimum work age at not less than 16 years, the age of completing compulsory schooling.

First Call urges the B.C. government to modernize legislation and regulations, and live up to Canada's ILO commitment.

Specifically, we call on the minister to raise the minimum age for formal employment to 16 with exceptions for light work that does not threaten the health and safety, or hinder the education, of children and younger adolescents.

We call on the minister to ensure hazardous tasks and worksites are entirely off-limits to workers under 18 and to provide adequate enforcement to ensure employer compliance.

We also call on the minister to set limits on the time of day for work (for example, prohibiting late night and overnight shifts) and set limits on the length of work time on a daily and weekly basis appropriate to age groups.

First Call's position is based on widely accepted tenets related to child and adolescent development, and the need for special protections related to employment.

We know not all work is harmful to children.

Appropriate light work of a casual nature can be beneficial to psychosocial development and promote self-sufficiency and confidence.

By contrast, though, some employers know that children and adolescents are generally more compliant, will accept lower pay and are less aware of safety issues and their rights than adults. And other employers simply do not understand workplace health and safety risks related to child and adolescent development.

International children's rights advocates make a clear distinction between appropriate work experience and "child labour." Child labour is never acceptable and refers to work that compromises children's safety, is harmful to physical or mental development, and interferes with their education.

Child labour often accompanies family and community poverty. It also perpetuates poverty by depriving children of opportunities to pursue education and to develop fully.

B.C.'s 15-year experiment with deregulating child and youth employment standards has demonstrated that exploitation and injury will occur when governments do not expressly protect children through legislation and regulation, and when those laws are not strictly enforced.

The British Columbia Law Institute's recent report on the Employment Standards Act agrees that government must act, as do most British Columbians. A 2018 public opinion survey found a large majority of respondents (78 per cent) support the introduction of legislation to provide greater regulation of the employment of children age 12 to 14.

Stronger standards are needed because without government protections, some employers are hiring children for inappropriate and dangerous work and too many of them are getting injured doing those jobs each year.

Childhood is a period of life that should be dedicated not to work, but to education and development.

Government must do more to protect children and youth and ensure they are not at risk of injury doing jobs meant for adults.

First Call's recommendations are supported by numerous organizations who join us in urging the minister to ensure legislative changes, based on these recommendations, are enacted this spring.

Adrienne Montani is provincial co-ordinator of First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.

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