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Child Labour Is Canada's Invisible Crisis

Sadly, child worker rights in Canada don't enter the public consciousness until a teenager is run over by a tractor or suffocated under a pile of tar -- no one is designated to proactively manage their best interests.

Two teens. Two deaths. Two unsafe summer jobs.

Maxime Degray was loading corn cobs on a western Quebec farm late in August 2005 when he fell off a slow-moving trailer and was crushed to death by its wheels. He was 13.

Andrew James was offloading materials for a paving company in Stony Mountain, Manitoba, in July 2008 when he was buried alive beneath a mound of hot asphalt. He was 15.

Canadians like to think that child labour only happens overseas, where children wield machetes on cocoa plantations in Ghana, and cut tiny fingers on carpet looms in India. Few think of teens paving Canada's highways. In fact, little attention is paid to working conditions for children in this country until one of them dies.

In these cases, both teens had reached the legal working age in their respective provinces, but that doesn't mean early employment was in their best interests.

So who was looking out for their best interests?

Employment is regulated by 14 governments in Canada, including the provinces and territories, as well as the federal government.

In Manitoba, where Andrew died, employees under 16 can't work on construction sites, in industrial manufacturing or on scaffolding. But the 15-year-old was offloading asphalt.

Meanwhile, in Quebec, children aged 12 to 14 can work with written parental consent. But 13-year-old Maxime wouldn't have needed consent to work the cornfield, since, as with most jurisdictions in Canada, child labour in the farming industry is almost entirely unregulated.

The inconsistencies, arbitrary regulations and unenforced rules are bewildering, which made us realize how hard it must be for kids and their parents to make sense of the hodgepodge that regulates Canada's most vulnerable workers.

Admittedly, we have more questions than answers. At what age should a child legally be allowed to work in Canada? Deaths or injuries resulting from safety violations also raised questions of maturity: at what age can a child fully comprehend their rights as workers?

It's not that Canada is free from child labour, but in fact the debate is so murky that the issue remains invisible.

We, like most of Canada's jurisdictions, are willing to make exceptions for young babysitters and those with paper routes, innocuous jobs that aren't technically "employment." But strangely, farming is also excluded from employment codes in Canada's prairies -- like in Alberta.

"So you can hire an eight-year-old to run a tractor [not covered in the provincial code]," says Bob Barnetson, associate professor of labour relations at Edmonton's Athabasca University. "Or, you can simply direct your own eight-year-old to run the tractor [not considered employment]."

Barnetson's research into the employment experiences of Alberta children found that nine, 10 and 11-year-olds worked in various sectors -- most illegally. And according to a 2008 investigative piece in The Walrus magazine, the youngest person to receive worker's compensation in Quebec in 2007 was eight years old.

Federal legislation prevents those under 17 from working during hours they're required to be in school, and never between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Children under 16 can't work in open pit mines or explosives factories.

But the minimum age and maximum hours for young workers vary by jurisdiction. In Manitoba, workers under 16 must obtain a permit from the Director of Employment Standards.

In Quebec, 12-year-olds just need parental consent. And the province doesn't impose maximum work hours. Ostensibly, a 12-year-old in Quebec could hawk burgers for 40 hours a week so long as they aren't supposed to be in school -- just not past 11 p.m. It's rather bizarre for a child with a full-time job to have what is essentially a federally-regulated bedtime.

If there is a trend amid the discrepancy, it's that provincial laws protecting young workers are becoming more lax. In 2003, British Columbia passed Bill 37, which loosened many restrictions for workers aged 12 to 14, removing permit requirements and random workplace inspections, which made enforcement of young worker regulations solely complaints-based. In 2009, Saskatchewan dropped its minimum working age from 15 to 14.

Young workers in Alberta require a permit to work certain jobs. But a controversial blanket exemption was granted to the restaurant industry in 2005. No doubt there was pressure from fast food lobbyists keen on using cheap labour to complement their greasy fries.

No one is likely to complain about a 13-year-old manning a deep-fryer. Certainly not the offending employer. Barnetson's research found that child workers, and even their parents, were mostly ignorant of young worker rights, which makes parental permission slips pointless and renders parents ineffective advocates for their child in the workplace.

Child labour, rightly, is an issue that gets more attention in developing countries.

Sadly, child worker rights in Canada don't enter the public consciousness until a teenager is run over by a tractor or suffocated under a pile of tar; no one is designated to proactively manage their best interests.

We are in desperate need of an advocate for children working in Canada.

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