Written by Samrah Mian, 2L, University of Victoria Faculty of Law
Many British Columbians are likely unaware that, until last year, children as young as 12 were able to work in a wide range of jobs. A letter from their parent served as their only safeguard. For almost two decades, child rights advocates have been expressing concern about workplace injuries and wage theft experienced by children. First Call, a non-partisan coalition of over 100 organizations that advocate for children in British Columbia, has issued numerous reports and recommendations urging the government to take action. But while the province recently tightened rules around the employment of workers under 15 years of age, the changes have not gone far enough, and child workers are still left vulnerable to exploitation.
In 2003, the B.C. government effectively lowered the working age to 12 years old by eliminating the requirement that the employer obtain a permit from the Employment Standards Branch, replacing it with a letter of permission from the child’s parent. They cited non-compliance with the permit requirement as their reason for doing so. Instead of the Employment Standards Branch assessing the suitability of the workplace for a child, the responsibility for this was placed on the parents. This was especially troubling as many children did not have permission letters despite having jobs. The letter requirement was also contrary to the Workers Compensation Act which placed the health and safety of workers on the shoulders of employers.
In 2019, B.C.’s Minister of Labour announced restrictions on the employment of children under 15. Raising the working age recognized the importance of keeping children out of the labour force until they are ready.
As per Canada’s obligations under international law, children have the right to be safeguarded from labour exploitation and injury. The lack of protection in recent years was in defiance of these norms, and resulted in a negative impact on numerous children.
At the age of 15, I had my first job as a salesperson at Old Navy. Two years later, a boutique retail shop hired me as an ‘assistant keyholder’. While they gave me a WorkSafeBC brochure when I was hired, I don’t remember reading it or asking any questions. The district manager was impressed by my work ethic and pushed me to drop out of college to commit to a career in retail. I skipped classes to cover shifts dropped by my colleagues. I remember cutting my knee quite badly on a piece of glass while clearing out a storage room. My supervisor congratulated me on my initiative and gave me a band aid that barely covered the wound. I worked overtime without compensation, but I never complained. And I never reported any injuries that I sustained.
Employment law has long since recognized the power differentials between employers and employees, but this power imbalance is exacerbated when the latter is a minor. Children rarely raise formal grievances against their employers; they are unaware of their rights, hesitant to start confrontations, and often concerned about the impact of their complaints on their future prospects. These conditions are ideal for employers looking to take advantage of their employees while minimizing the risk of being subjected to labour code complaints. For these reasons, children are ripe for labour exploitation.
If the B.C. government is serious about ensuring the safety and well-being of children in the workplace, proactive enforcement is required. While the collection of information about child labour is critical, it is equally important that this be done by a body capable of taking action against employers who are unable or unwilling to provide safe workplaces and fair wages to children.
The complaint-driven enforcement systems embodied by the Employment Standards Branch and WorkSafeBC are ineffective in situations where the complainant group is highly vulnerable. Labour rights activists have been calling for proactive enforcement of employment standards legislation. They have cited complaints-based enforcement mechanisms as being ineffective, since workers feel intimated and wary of retaliation. Those working precarious jobs in food services, retail, and agriculture are particularly at risk. Unsurprisingly, these sectors also employ a significant number of children. Thus, the combination of their young age and the environment of the industries they work in results in children facing substantial barriers in complaining about poor treatment at the hands of their employers.
B.C. can commit to systemic reform of their complaint mechanism by instituting an investigative enforcement framework. Alongside the limitations placed on child labour, they can compensate for the disempowerment of child workers by using a range of techniques and tools to ensure compliance by employers. These can include ongoing inspections of specific industries, wide ‘sweeps’, data collection and monitoring, allowing third parties to file complaints, and targeting employers who are concerned about their brands’ reputations. Some of these measures have already been successfully implemented in Ontario.
Over the last few decades, political leaders and courts have recognized that the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration when setting policy around children. A lack of agency in their employment relationships directly contravenes their best interests. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, an instrument ratified by the federal government, specifies the rights of children to protection from mistreatment and injury (article 19), and to be free from economic exploitation and hazardous work (article 32). Article 4 and 5 of the Convention places the responsibility of protecting child rights on the government. As such, if our governments do not adequately protect children from exploitation and fail to provide them with meaningful recourse, the responsibility for the violation of a child worker’s rights lies with them.
Samrah Mian, Child Labour in B.C.: Our Inadequate Enforcement Mechanisms, Canadian Law of Work Forum (July 10 2020): http://lawofwork.ca/?p=12858
First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, “Employment of Children and Youth in BC”(May 2019)
First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, “Child Labour is No Accident: The Experience of BC’s Working Children” (May 2013) at 4-6 [First Call, “Child Labour”].
Ibid at 13-14.
Ibid at 8.
BC Employment Standards Coalition, “Submission to Minister of Labour Harry Bains for Immediate Action on Employment Standards Reform” (September 2018) at 15
Employment Standards Act,RSBC 1996, c 113, s 9. See also Government of British Columbia, “Hiring Children – Act Part 2, Section 9” (December 2019)
First Call, “Child Labour”, supra note 2 at 29.
BC Employment Standards Coalition, supra note 5 at 15.
First Call, “Child Labour”, supra note 2 at 15-17.
Ibid at 8.
First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, “B.C. Child and Youth Employment Standards Policy Recommendations” (August 2018) at 10
BC Employment Standards Coalition, supra note 5 at 3.
Ibid at 3-4.
First Call, “Child Labour”, supra note 2 at 6 and 10.
BC Employment Standards Coalition, supra note 5 at 5-6.
Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, UNTS 1577 (entered into force 2 September 1990).
The Convention is binding upon all levels of government despite any federal divisions of power.