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Youth advocates launch BC child labour study

Child and youth advocates launched a provincial survey of young workers today in an effort to cumulate data on British Columbia's most "vulnerable" workforce.

First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition's BC Child Labour Standards Improvement Project began today with the Youth Work Experience Survey, an online survey open to the public and aimed at youth, parents, and educators, looking specifically at health and safety, labour standards, and impact on education for young workers ages 12-18 in B.C.

Adrienne Montani, First Call's provincial coordinator, says it's important information that neither Statistics Canada nor the provincial government have previously bothered to collect data for youth workers under 15.

"When we talked to officials at Stats Can about that they basically said the sample size is such a small number it's not worth their time. They think it's such a small number, they think, because nobody's tracking it," says Montani. "And at the provincial level they've never kept track, and they just aren't interested, as far as I can tell, in tracking that."

Child and labour advocates have been worried about youth workers in B.C. since the provincial government lowered the legal age limit for employment from 14 to 12 in 2003, provided children can produce a letter of parental or guardian consent. Children even younger than that can work with specific permission from the department of employment standards.

According to an email to The Tyee from the ministry of labour, "prior to 2003, youth employment standards regulations were challenging to enforce as the Employment Standards Branch was often not made aware that a young worker was employed. Only 400 permits a year on average were issued before 2003."

The ministry notes the province's Employment Standards Regulations puts strict limits on the number of hours a 12-14 year old is allowed to work per week, prohibits work during school hours, and requires constant adult supervision. The fines for employers who break those rules for $500, $2500, or $10,000.* Ultimately, however, it's up to the parents to keep an eye on the situation.

"Parents are primarily responsible for their children. By requiring explicit parental permission, the Employment Standards Branch now knows they approve of the location of work, the hours of work and the type of work to be performed. In the limited instances where young people aged 12 to 14 are employed, they are often found doing jobs like working at their parent’s convenience store, clearing tables in restaurants, or doing paper routes," says the ministry.

Preliminary research conducted in Alberta by Bob Barnetson, an assistant professor of Labour Relations at Athabasca University, and published in the Spring 2009 issue of Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society, concluded that over 11,000 children between the ages of 9-11, and approximately 39,500 children between the ages of 12-14 were employed in Alberta--some illegally.

It's numbers like these that concern Montani and the other members of First Call who want to use numbers from this data, as well as data already collected through the McCreary Centre Society's Adolescent Health Survey, to illustrate the need for tighter controls over child labour.

"We're going to put (the data) together with some of this background research that we're also doing and researches on best practices or better employment standards for children in other jurisdictions, both in Canada and what international best standards are, into a report with recommendations to government, and then have a bit of a campaign around that to try and build public support around that," she says, adding they've appealed to successive labour ministers about child labour laws in B.C. to no avail.

"When government doesn't count something, it doesn't get scrutiny."

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth for The Tyee and others.

*Previously reported as $500 to $1000. Updated February 2, 10:59 a.m.

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