Laws to protect kid labourers too lax: advocates

OttawaSun.com – News/Canada
Last Updated: September 17, 2010.  By Kathleen Harris, QMI Agency

OTTAWA – Canada is a champion for the health and welfare of children around the world, but some experts say federal and provincial governments could be facilitating the exploitation of minors through lax child labour laws.

Each province and territory now has jurisdiction to craft its own rules related to the minimum work-start age, maximum hours and types of employment. But decrying a recent “erosion” of protections for child workers — especially in British Columbia and Alberta — there is a growing call for the federal government to impose national minimum standards.

“I think we have a catastrophe waiting to happen,” said Helesia Luke, a child welfare researcher and advocate based in Vancouver.

Legislative amendments in 2003 mean B.C. children can start formal work in a range of occupations as early as 12 with the consent of a parent or guardian. Luke says children that young are vulnerable to safety hazards and economic exploitation, and with the legal right to juggle 20 hours of work a week with classes, or 35 hours when school’s out, children are also at risk of falling behind in school or eventually dropping out.

There is no available data to track all young workers in B.C. or across Canada, but provincial injury claims show more kids have been hurt on the job in recent years. Most provinces restrict the type of work children are allowed to do, but young people have toiled in a number of workplaces, from retail to farms, construction, mines or service industries.

Next month the Canadian Labour Congress will launch a public education and political lobby campaign to demand minimum national standards for child labour. Advocates also want Canada to ratify the 1973 International Labour Organization’s Convention 138 on minimum work-start age.

Luke said children can be pressured to work for economic reasons — including from some struggling immigrant families.

“We know that’s not the way out of poverty,” she said. “The way out of poverty is not child labour — it’s education.”

As a wealthy leading nation, Canada should be setting its bar high, she said.

Kathy Vandergrift, chair of the Ottawa-based Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, agrees Canada must impose national minimum standards while allowing some flexibility for provincial regulation. While work can be a healthy way for young people to gain experience and confidence, she insists there must be strong protections in place.

“In a developing country context, children’s rights advocates support working children where it is necessary and really focus on adequate protections for those children and ensuring they get their education,” she said. “Canada is not in a situation where children need to work for that kind of survival. Therefore the laws should not be allowed to erode to the same level as other countries.”

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada spokesman Ugo Therien said the federal government is committed to working with international partners to protect children and eliminate harmful child labour. While there is already a “high degree of conformity” with the principles of ILO’s Convention 138, discussions are ongoing among provincial and territorial ministers who are looking at ratification.

“School attendance to at least age 16 is compulsory and all Canadian jurisdictions have legislation protecting children from economic exploitation and hazardous work,” Therien said. “While Canadian practices are generally consistent with the Convention, at this time some of its detailed technical requirements are not provided for in legislation.”

In her role working with youth, Dayna Sykes of the B.C. Federation of Labour has heard stories of kids injured on the job and being robbed at knifepoint while working alone.

She worries youth are used as “cheap labour” because they can legally be paid less and are put in compromising situations because they don’t know how to challenge authority.

“It’s an easy demographic to take advantage of,” she said.

kathleen.harris@sunmedia.ca

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