When Jeni Mathers tells people that children as young as 12 are working on British Columbia's construction sites and factory floors, she gets some extreme reactions. "A lot of people are in denial about it. When we talk to them they're shocked, they're embarrassed, they say, 'That can't possibly be.'"
Mathers is one of several members of the B.C. Employment Standards Coalition who have been visiting community events across the province, raising awareness for what they, and many others, see as a huge problem. In B.C., any child under 15 can hold almost any job with little more regulation than a parent's permission note. These young workers are inexperienced, poorly protected and being injured on a regular basis.
Sweeping changes made by Liberal government
The province's laws weren't always so permissive. A decade ago, B.C., like most other provinces, mandated that children under 15 could only work with special written permission from the government's Labour Standards Board. Employers hiring children had to be issued a permit, which was conditional upon regular workplace safety inspections by trained officials.
But in the spring of 2003, sweeping changes were made to the province's Employment Standards Act. Now, all a child of 12, 13 or 14 needs to join the workforce is one parent or guardian's permission.
Those employer permits and regular government safety inspections have been scrapped too. And, while other provinces limit younger workers to light jobs, such as store clerking, B.C. kids can work in nearly any environment, regardless of how dangerous it is. Only mines are off-limits to young workers.
Worse, the workplace safety standards regulating protective gear, lifting restrictions and machinery were all developed for adults, not children. This has left young workers at even greater risk of injury than their older coworkers.
Tenfold increase in children injured on the job
Within a year of the legislation changes, the number of workplace injury claims made by children under 15 grew tenfold. At its peak, in 2008, the Workers' Compensation Board accepted 42 claims made by 13 and 14 year-olds. And that does not include unreported injuries, or injuries that were not deemed suitable for compensation.
But the detrimental impact of sending children into the workforce reaches far beyond physical injury. The current legislation in B.C. permits children to work up to 20 hours in a five-day school week, a far greater workload than they can manage, according to Mathers. "[Working] really lessens the futures of children because they are starting to get tired in school, they can't focus on their studies," she said.
When the new legislation was put in place, then-Minister of Skills Development and Labour Graham Bruce insisted that the changes "recognize[d] that parents have the most important role when it comes to deciding what is in a child's best interests." Nine years' worth of workplace injury claims by children suggest the government should take back that role.
Bob Barnetson is an Associate Professor of Labour Relations at Alberta's Athabasca University. Through his research into young workers in Canada, he has found that few parents truly understand what their children do at work and what hazards they face on a regular basis.
Responsibility for safety shifted to parents
When the change in legislation shifted responsibility of workplace safety appraisals to parents, a basic list indicating what to look for was posted on the B.C. government's website. It amounts to approximately one page.
WorkSafeBC, British Columbia's Workers' Compensation Board, is trying to provide some additional assistance. It has partnered with employer associations, labour organizations, and parent and community groups, and gotten workplace safety integrated into the school curriculum. The results have been positive, but inconsistent. Between 2009 and 2011, the numbers of accepted claims were 17, nine, and 11, respectively.
The reduction in approved claims does not, however, mean children are now safe at work. For one thing, the official numbers of injuries are habitually suspected to skew low, as untold numbers of injuries go unreported.
Even adult workers can struggle with the complexities of filing an injury compensation claim. And children are more susceptible to the pressures of employers who don't want an injured child marring their record. Without the support the government used to provide, children are on their own when it comes to workplace injuries.
No overarching child labour rules in Canada
B.C. is free to gut safety regulation largely because Canada has no overarching child labour rules. The International Labour Organization's Convention 138 on Child Labour states that no child younger than 13 should have a job and that, until 15, children should only do light work.
Since the convention was put into place in 1976, 163 countries have ratified it. Canada is not one of them. This has left provinces to legislate as they please.
According to Barnetson, government unwillingness to regulate child labour is a sign of how little political influence youth really have. Which is why organizations like the B.C. Employment Standards Coalition are standing up to fight for better regulation.
The Coalition represents several smaller groups of advocates who have joined together to lobby for children's workplace safety. Its membership is diverse. Mathers, for instance, is from the Canadian Auto Workers union. She is joined by members of CUPE, the B.C. Teachers Federation, the postal workers union, several lawyers and other activists of all types and backgrounds.
Above all else, the Coalition wants the public and government alike to understand the inherent dangers of allowing children into the workplace with so little regulation.
New legislation proposed to protect children
To improve young worker safety, the Employment Standards Coalition are currently promoting new proposed legislation. It would prohibit anyone under 14 from working. Any child under 16 would have to have both parental and governmental approval to work, and all employers would have to keep a registry of employees under the age of 18.
So far the Coalition has received little feedback from politicians, but its members are hoping to garner some support amongst B.C.'s Legislative Assembly.
The aim is to get child workers out of the workplace, and provide adolescents who do have jobs with the safety and support they need. In the eyes of the Coalition's members, even one injured child is too many.
Peter Goffin is a writer and recent political science graduate living in Toronto. His work has appeared in The Toronto Star, OpenFile, and This magazine.