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    Cute Kids, Cheap Labour
    Graeme Moore

    The face of BC's workforce is changing - it's getting much younger.

    On December 14 new labour regulations came into force that position British Columbia as the most child labour friendly jurisdiction in North America.
    In a move resembling a chapter from Dicken's Scrooge, the provincial government has reduced the standard for child protection and dropped BC's work-start age from 15 to 12 years. Under new legislation, a child as young as 12 may wind up selling you a loaf of bread at two am in your
    local convenience store, picking up debris on a construction site or hocking goods door to door - all as government willfully turns a blind eye.
    At a time when more and more families are struggling with unemployment and poverty, government is making it easier to hire children. The government's claim that mandatory fines on employers will protect kids fails to recognize the intense financial pressures on BC families. Encouraging child labour with less government oversight is a recipe for disaster.

    Under the previous system, an employer was required to apply to the Employment Standards Branch Director for a permit to hire a child under the age of 15. This process allowed Branch employees to conduct worksite inspections and place restrictions on the type and hours of work. The Branch would consider whether or not potential employment opportunities would have a negative impact on the child's education, health or safety. Contrary to the Minister of Labour's claims, Branch officers frequently declined permit applications or imposed conditions on employers before issuing permits.
    In addition, parental and school consent was required before a child under 15 could legally work. Through the permitting process, government had a direct role to play in protecting children and determining what work opportunities were safe and appropriate. In doing so, government created a cautionary environment where children's rights were prioritized over work.
    In defense of reducing child labour standards, Minister Graham Bruce claims that many employers were breaking the law and hiring children under 15 without a permit anyway. This explanation poses questionable logic: many motorists disobey stop signs, is removing stop signs the solution to breaking the law ?
    These changes end over fifty years of direct government oversight of children in the workplace. Now, employers are only required to obtain a parent's consent, that's a parent--only one--to hire a child under 15.

    It's the parents' responsibility, Bruce claims, to make sure that work is right for their child.  While it is surely true that most parents would never knowingly put their child in harm's way, it is also true that most parents do not have access to in-depth knowledge and training needed to assess worksite safety.

    A startling example of this occurred several years ago when an employment officer visited a butcher shop to assess whether job related tasks were safe for a young teenage boy. On the site, the officer discovered that while the boy could easily enter the walk-in-freezer, he was not strong enough to operate the internal lever to exit the freezer. In this instance the boy's parents had already consented to his employment, highlighting the fact that many well-intentioned parents simply don't know what questions to ask and how to ensure their child is doing tasks suitable to ability and maturity.
    Now, BC parents will be on their own when it comes to protecting their child's best interests in the workplace. Minister Bruce asserts that new regulations protect children. It is hard to imagine that any reasonable person would interpret these regulations as protections.  Children, between 12 and 15, can work up to four hours on a school day.  When added to school time, that turns into a 10 hour workday, before homework or extra activities.   On non-school days, children can work seven hours.  In some circumstances, the Branch may waive those limits. Educators have been removed from the process and children do not need permission from school authorities to work.

    Even more troubling: there are no prohibited occupations under the new system. Unlike our neighbours in Alberta and Washington, BC regulations do not list jobs that are obviously unsuitable for developing children including operating machinery or tasks that require strength or mature judgment.

    Bill 37 is the legislation behind this and was enacted without consulting the many organizations and individuals who expressed serious concerns about the dangers of loosening restrictions on hiring children. While the rest of the world is implementing United Nations recommendations for more restrictions on child labour, BC is marching in the opposite direction.

    Bill 37 puts children at risk as never before. It violates the government's responsibility to its younger citizens and puts its own agenda of deregulation before the health and safety of the most vulnerable members in our society.
    Editorial Note: This commentary was rejected by the Global Canwest media outlets, including the Vancouver Sun and Province.

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