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Is 12 too young to work? Youth advocates slam B.C.’s lax child-labour laws

A youth advocacy group is calling on the province to tighten regulations around child labour, arguing that B.C. has some of the most lax regulations around children working in North America — and the government is now putting the question to the public. 

Currently, the minimum age of formal employment in B.C. is 12.  There are no age-specific restrictions on the time of day a child can work outside of school hours, the tasks they can do, or the industry in which they work.

“We’re seeing kids working in construction, they’re working in manufacturing and they’re working in the trades,” said Helesia Luke, communications and development coordinator of First Call B.C.

“We know this because we know that they’re getting hurt there.”

The group sent an open letter to B.C.’s Ministry of Labour, calling for a number of changes to the province’s Employment Standards Act like raising the minimum age of formal employment to 16.

They also want to ban children under 18 from doing hazardous jobs — like working with heavy equipment or on construction sites. Other “light work” would have some exemptions to the restrictions.  

It’s been an ongoing battle since the province’s labour laws were changed in 2004 but Luke said she’s optimistic this time around.

“There isn’t a single minister of labour that we have not met with to discuss this,” she told CBC’s The Early Edition.

“With this new government, we have had some signals from the minister that he is willing to look at better standards.”

The Ministry of Labour has turned to the public for input on how to modernize the Employment Standards Act. Consultations run until March 31.

Exemptions can be made for some kinds of underage ‘light work,’ Helesia Luke of First Call B.C. says. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

Workplace accidents for teens

There is a “data gap” in exactly how many underage workers there are in B.C., Luke said, because Statistics Canada doesn’t track the participation of under-15s in the workforce.

The best indication First Call B.C. has at the moment is through accident claim data.

“We were shocked it was even worse than what we thought it would be,” she said.

In the last decade, WorkSafeBC has paid out more than $5 million in disability claims to 12- to 14-year-olds.

During that time, an additional 2,000 children under 14 were approved for health-care claims related to being injured in the workplace.

“We’ve heard from a young man who, when he was 12, was stripping autos in a scrap yard and spilled battery acid all over himself,” Luke said.

“He has a lifelong scar from that experience. That’s too high a price to pay when you’re 12.”

A youth advocacy group is calling on the province to tighten regulations around child labour, arguing that B.C. has some of the most lax regulations around children working in North America. 7:47

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