Children need greater protection in the world of work

October 3, 2005

Two years ago the provincial government made dramatic changes to BC’s child labour rules, relaxing the laws and regulations that govern the hiring of children as young as 12. The move provoked concern among parents and educators, who worried that children’s safety, and their freedom to learn and develop, would be put at risk.

Before the changes, no employer was allowed to hire a child under 15 without first getting a permit from the Employment Standards Branch. The need for a permit gave the branch the opportunity to investigate the workplace, decide if restrictions on the type and hours of work were needed, and received parental and school consent.

Under the new system, all that is needed to hire a child aged 12-14 is the written permission of one parent. The child is required to be directly supervised by an adult at all times. The regulations do not restrict potentially hazardous activities (such as selling door-to-door or operating a deep fryer). They do not require that safe transportation be provided to and from work. And they do not restrict the time of day (or night) a child can work.

To find out if and how these new rules are working, and to get a picture of youth employment in general, my research team conducted a survey of public school students aged 12 to 18 about their work experiences.

The results show that for many young people, having a job is a positive experience.

But the results also reveal some disturbing violations of the rules, particularly for children. Of the surveyed 12-14 year-olds who currently have jobs:

  • 70% reported they worked without adult supervision some or all of the time;

  • Nearly half (48%) reported that their parents had not evaluated the health and safety of the workplace;

  • More than half (58%) reported that their employer did not receive written approval from their parents.

There is little doubt that the vast majority of parents would never knowingly put their child in harm’s way. But most parents are not experts in workplace health and safety. They no longer have the benefit of the knowledge and resources that were available under the old system, when the Employment Standards Branch actually had to decide if a potential job was appropriate.

A fact sheet on the Ministry website states that parents are responsible for all decisions about their child’s employment — but there are no details, guidelines or suggested resources on how parents are supposed to fulfill their responsibilities. A phone call to the Employment Standards Branch requesting information about what kinds of questions a parent should ask a potential employer of a child under 15 elicited the response that “We don’t provide anything like that whatsoever.”

Some parents also may not be in a position to insist on safe working conditions for their children, either because of desperate economic circumstances, a shared employer, language barriers, or lack of knowledge about minimum employment standards in general.

All of this would be less worrisome if we were talking about babysitting and paper routes. However, our survey results show that young people work in a wide variety of ‘regular’ jobs, with retail and food service being the most common. More than one in five working children and youth reported that they have been injured on the job, most often burned. A third of those were injured seriously enough to need treatment at a hospital, clinic or doctor’s office.

The provincial government’s rationale for changing BC’s child labour rules was that the old permit system wasn’t effective. But these results tell us that the new ‘self-regulation’ model is not working and may be leaving children vulnerable to unsafe working conditions and serious injury.

It has long been recognized that the employment of children and youth requires special rules to make sure their education and overall development are not harmed as a result of participating in the world of work. It is this very idea that underlies the International Labour Organization’s Minimum Age Convention. It states that the minimum work age should not be less than 15 years.

We hope these results will prompt the government to reconsider its approach, and go back to the drawing board. The risks of continuing with the current system are simply too great.

Stephen McBride is a Professor of Political Science at Simon Fraser University and the lead author of the CCPA study "Child and Youth Employment Standards: The Experience of Young Workers Under BC’s New Policy Regime," published in September 2005.