Daphne Bramham: Changing B.C.’s Dickensian-era child labour laws is worth celebrating

For decades, British Columbia had the worst child labour laws in North America. That’s changing and worth celebrating this Labour Day.

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For decades, British Columbia has had among the worst child labour laws in North America, worse than states like Arkansas, Alabama and Texas that Canadians usually view askance.

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So, it is real cause for celebration this Labour Day that finally, in October, B.C. children will be protected by laws that conform to international standards. But there’s still work to be done because not included in the reforms are bans on the most Dickensian of jobs.

It’s surprising enough that it’s only in its second term that the union-backed New Democratic Party government is finally dealing with the egregious and exploitative child labour laws.

But it’s astounding that the provision that allows children to work in mines as trainees, work with explosives, toxic substances and heavy equipment wasn’t the first thing addressed, instead of the last. Because the government has yet to define “hazardous work”, although Labour Minister Harry Bains promised to deliver that “later this year.” Yet, for now, it means the old rules apply, albeit for those 16 and older, rather than 12.

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Bizarrely, serving alcohol has long been deemed more dangerous than mining. Youth have to be 18 to work in a bar.

That there has been no prolonged public outcry to make these changes sooner is also astonishing since it’s been nearly 140 years since Charles Dickens wrote about the plight of child labourers in England.

Two decades into the 21st century, B.C. kids 14 years old and younger have continued to be injured at work. More than $1.1 million was paid out in job-reality disability claims for them between 2007 and 2016, according to WorkSafeBC.

Starting in October, the minimum working age rises to 14 from 12.

There are a few exceptions. Kids as young as 12 will still be able to do things like babysit and deliver newspapers and flyers. (As an aside, Postmedia stopped using child carriers years ago.) They will also still be able work on their families’ farms or businesses owned by their immediate family as long as that work is within the safety criteria.

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But 14- and 15-year-olds will only be allowed to do “light work”. Things like working as lifeguards, golf caddies, camp counsellors. They can stock shelves, do yard work, harvesting by hand, stock shelves, bus tables, wash dishes and that sort of thing.

Finally, youth caregivers will be protected under the Employment Standards Act if they work more than 15 hours a week.

But, until October, 12-year-olds can still work up to 20 hours a week during school. When school is out, they’ve been able to work up to 40 hours a week.

Children should never have been substitutes for adult workers and certainly not now, even if British Columbia faces an acute labour shortage as baby boomers continue their inexorable march into retirement.

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Paradoxically, as we surf the fourth wave of COVID-19, those shortages should provide more hope than despair to workers — if not employers.

As a result of the pandemic, the government has already mandated changes that improve the working conditions for long-term care workers.

Since June, it has required three days’ paid sick leave for any workers who have COVID or have been in contact with someone who has. Until the end of the year, the province has been reimbursing employers for up to $200 a day of such leave.

But come next year, it promises that the temporary program will be made permanent in some form. How that will work is part of the discussions it is currently having with business, labour and Indigenous leaders.

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For struggling employers, who’ve barely survived months of shutdowns, restrictions and increased costs due to COVID, this likely seems more bad news.

Everywhere you look there are Help Wanted signs are plastered on doors, windows and utility polls as well as on social media.

Attracting workers back after the lockdowns and finding replacements for those not returning leaves businesses with few alternatives.

One option is better wages and working conditions. That’s especially so in the hospitality sector where, according to RBC Economics, wages remain 57 per cent below other service-sector jobs.

Another option is fast-tracking investments in technological changes that over the coming years will replace tens of thousands of low-skilled jobs.

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But it’s a third option that is highlighted by RBC Economics in its June report on rebuilding Canada’s labour market: End the systemic dysfunction.

By making use of the existing “underutilized talent pool” alone could increase gross domestic product by $30 billion a year. RBC challenges policy-makers to provide better access to child- and elder care, which will free up more women to work.

It urges providing the infrastructure so that the skills and credentials of immigrants are recognized.

Internationally trained doctors, nurses and veterinarians spring most readily to mind. But there are others, including those in desperately needed trades, who aren’t working because of regulatory barriers.

Ever since 1894, the first Monday in September has been a Canadian holiday set aside to celebrate workers’ achievements and to campaign for change.

This year, British Columbians have reason to celebrate. But they also have reason to keep lobbying for other desperately needed changes that will help the pandemic’s economic recovery.

Dbramham@postmedia.com

Twitter: @bramham_daphne

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