May 24, 2010
The Price of Child Labour
by Adrienne Montani
WorkSafeBC has paid out more than $1 million in disability claims to children injured on the job since 2003.
Cory was 13 when he started working doing construction cleanup for up to 35 hours per week. Though the law requires an employer to obtain a letter of permission from a parent before hiring someone under 15, he wasn’t asked for one. He was promised a video game as payment — he never received it. On one occasion he fell through scaffolding and landed one storey below. His boss offered him a beer, which he didn’t drink. He was in pain for about a week. No WorkSafeBC accident report was made.
Ava started work at age 11 cleaning cars. At age 14 she became a nanny, caring for two young children from after school to as late as 11 p.m. She was paid from the parents’ child care subsidy, earning about $2.76 per hour. She was paid in cash and often paid late. Her employer made her feel guilty for even asking for her pay.
Child labour is not a concept most British Columbians associate with their own province. But by any international measure, child labour is part of B.C.’s current reality and has been since 2004.
For the past year, First Call Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition has been gathering stories and experiences like these from young people all over the province. These stories form the core of a research report we have just released, Child Labour is No Accident — the Experience of B.C.’s Working Children, documenting the experience of young people who worked as 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds in B.C. since 2004. Many of their stories are benign, what we would hope from young people encountering the working world for the first time. Too many, however, tell of economic exploitation, personal injury and loss of opportunity as education gives way to short-term work demands.
First Call has been monitoring the issue of employment standards for children in British Columbia since the B.C. government passed Bill 37 in 2003. Bill 37 amended the Employment Standards Act to lower the general work-start age in B.C. from 15 to 12 by eliminating the legal requirement that an employer obtain a permit from the Employment Standards Branch before hiring a child under 15. The former permit process recognized that while there might be exceptional circumstances when a child under 15 could be employed in regular work, as a general rule children should not be employed before 15. Protecting children under 15 from entering the workforce is an internationally recognized and widely adopted employment standard. Since 1973, 161 countries have ratified the ILO Minimum Age Convention which sets the minimum age for entry into employment at 15. An even higher standard is expected from countries with compulsory schooling beyond age 15.
This year, on the eve of publishing this report, WorkSafeBC provided us some current data. The data provides a startling indication of the risks working children face. There has been a dramatic increase in annual payments for accepted disability claims related to children ages 12 to 14 injured on the job. Overall, WorkSafeBC has paid over $1.1 million in disability claims for 179 children injured on the job since 2003. 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.
Within this data lie several tragic stories that led to large disability payments to two males, both under the age of 15 at time of their injury. They are both now permanently disabled because they went to work, legally, at a workplace prohibited to children in other provinces.
The successful arguments made by some business sector leaders and politicians to deregulate child labour in B.C. have come at a terrible cost. The participation of children in the workforce has led to more, and more serious injuries since laws changed in 2003.
The public costs — in disability benefits, rehabilitation, health care and lost human potential — far outweigh whatever short-term economic benefits an employer might perceive there to be in employing children. And more importantly the safety of our children has been left to the ups and downs of economic demand.
It is safe to say that had the law not been changed to allow children as young as 12 to work in virtually every occupation, at almost all tasks and at all times of day, these terrible accidents would likely not have occurred. Before 2003, their employment would not have been legal.
The next government must take immediate action to protect B.C.’s children from injury and exploitation. The story of healthy societies and economies the world over is one where adults are employed and children are in school.
To read more about the experiences of B.C.’s working children and youth, including effects on health and safety, wages and working conditions, and education please visit www.firstcallbc.org.
Adrienne Montani is provincial coordinator of First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.
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