Christy Clark's excuses for child labour in B.C. defy logic and good public policy

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On May 9, First Call BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition released "Child Labour is No Accident: The Experience of B.C.'s Working Children.," an eighteen-month research project funded by the Law Foundation of B.C.

Researchers set out (once again) to find out how deregulating child labour has affected children and youth. Specifically we focused on three areas of potential impact: health and safety, wages and working conditions, and education. We also compared B.C.'s law with employment standards in other jurisdictions. 

Most importantly, we set out to hear the voices of youth and children. Their experiences should give us all cause for concern. Forty-three per cent of youth study participants reported sustaining workplace injuries. The most common injuries were burns, cuts and falls. Several study participants reported serious injuries, including a 12-year-old with burns down the front of his body from battery acid, a 13- year-old with a broken wrist and back injury from a fall, and another with blistered fingers from a burn on a grill.

Lack of pay for training is a common experience among working children and youth.  Employers will ask workers to come in for a "try out" shift, or they will be asked to start working as part of the interview for the position.

Sixteen per cent of participants reported having dropped out of school due to their work schedule and/or financial need and forty-six per cent reported being too tired and/or not having enough time to complete their homework or participate appropriately at school as a result of working too much.

And about half of study participants reported they did not receive adequate (or in some cases any) training at their jobs.

Since 2003, when the B.C. Liberal government lowered the work start age to 12 and removed the permit system, it has been virtually impossible to figure out how many children are working and at what tasks. Unfortunately, child work injury statistics have been the bread crumb trail we must follow.

On the eve of publishing this report, WorksafeBC provided current child work injury data. This new data provided a startling indication of the risks working children face and revealed an urgent need for policy change now.

There has been a dramatic increase in annual payments for accepted disability claims related to children ages 12 to 14 injured on the job. Since 2004, nine young people were designated "long-term disabled" (LTD) as a result of a work-related injury sustained when they were under the age of 15 years.  In total, WorkSafeBC has paid over 1.1 million dollars in disability claims for 179 children injured on the job since 2003.

Within the spike in claims claims in 2011 and 2012 are two males under the age of fifteen who received payments for "high cost" injury claims in 2011 and/or 2012. They are both now permanently disabled because they went to work, legally, at a workplace prohibited to children in other provinces.

It is important to note that these disability claims do not include health-care or rehabilitation costs or measure the human cost in lost potential or family well-being. It's entirely clear now that children have already paid a personal price and collectively we are all paying the social costs of subsidizing businesses with a cheap pool of child labourers.

In light of this new data, provided by the government's own crown corporation, WorkSafeBC, one might think the BC Liberals would pause and reflect on this bad public policy. Sane people would be wrong. In a meeting with the Vancouver Sun editorial board last Friday, Clark repeated the same arguments that have left our children's safety and well-being up to the vagaries of the economy and the ethics of business interests.  

This is a situation that even astonished Vancouver Sun editors, who, in 2009, described B.C.'s child labour laws as "among the most lax in North America." But both Clark and BC Liberal spokesperson, Sam Oliphant, regurgitated the tired neoliberal lexicon using words like "flexibility" and "choice" to defend what is surely one of the most globally, out-of-touch policy decisions this government made.

Clark's response shouldn't come as a surprise really -- she was a founding member of a government that appointed a Minister of Deregulation and gave bonuses to Ministers for eliminating lines of regulation. It was this 'wild west' style of government that quickly identified 12 – 14 year-olds as a cheap pool of compliant labour and one that could be released from government oversight with a quick stroke of an eraser.   

In effect, in 2003, the BC Liberal government transferred responsibility for children's safety in the workplace from the Employment Standards Branch to parents and then took out ads in newspapers across the province announcing to employers they could now hire 12-year-olds.

Clark however, continues to ignore the demand side of the child labour equation, and clings to 'parent choice' language implying that parents, all of them, have the experience, and expertise to assess work site safety and the authority to enforce it.

Citing her own experience working when she was 12 years-old is an ignorant rationalization that betrays a narrow, middle-class, perspective that imagines child labour is about 'pocket money' and 'learning responsibility.' Clark's logic-defying conclusion that these debilitating work injuries might still have happened if the permit system was in place, reveals a stellar deficit in understanding the purpose of making and enforcing good public policy.  

Ten years later it would be nice to hear some reflection from the Liberals on the now measurable impacts of child labourers, but it seems that's wishful thinking.

If this government has not been able to take measures to protect children from economic exploitation and work-related injuries, something most countries of the world understand, then it's time for grown-ups to step in and act in the interest of B.C.'s youngest residents.


Helesia Luke is a public policy researcher and a senior consultant with Ethos Strategy Group

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