CHILD LABOUR IS BACK. But in a good way, according to the CAQ government in Québec. Child labour is not a social evil anymore—something to outlaw. Now it is a fact of economic life—something we need to normalize. The CAQ has proposed a law to do just that.
The CAQ government presents the proposed law (Bill 19) as a way to make working safer and a “positive life experience” for children. The trigger for the law—namely, the explosive growth of children in the Québec workforce, and so the need for better laws to protect them—is not mentioned.
More kids than ever
According to a January 2023 survey of 18,000 high school students in Québec’s Eastern Townships 62 percent of them were working—a 26 percent increase in just one year.
Also alarming, among 12-year-old students, 54 percent said they were working in 2023—more than four times the 13 percent in 2022. One-fifth of respondents in grades 7 and 8 said they were working more than 15 hours per week.
More children at work means more children injured on the job. Québec ministry of labour officials say the annual number of work-related injuries for those aged 16 and under increased 60.8 percent (from 278 to 447) between 2017 and 2021. For children under 14, the number of accidents increased by an astounding 540 percent (from 10 to 64 per year). Experts say these figures are a marked underestimate.
The proposed law would set 17 hours per week as the work limit for Québec children 16 years-old and under, during the school year.
Currently, employers can hire young children so as long as they receive parental consent. The proposed law would change that, setting the legal minimum age to work as 14—with some exceptions for jobs like babysitting or tutoring.
Employers want more
Karl Blackburn, the head of the largest employers’ group in the province, says he supports the stricter measures: “We don’t have to put on the shoulders of young people the responsibility to resolve the labour shortage,” he said.
But he also said he hopes to convince the government to make exemptions for specific sectors like the tourism and restaurants.
Critics of the proposed bill point out that it is worded in such a way that it opens the door to numerous exceptions and exemptions. For example: the official minimum working age would be set at 14. But a child under 14 would be able to work with parental permission in “low-risk” areas, as well as in a family business with fewer than 10 employees, if one of their parents owns the business.
Employer organizations want the proposed bill to give them still more “flexibility,” that is, greater access to child labour.
Just like summer camp
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) and the Union des producteurs agricoles du Québec (UPA), which includes many multi-million-dollar dairy and poultry operations, are demanding the uninhibited “right” to hire 90,000 children under 14 as they did in 2022, regardless of the economic sector.
Québec Solidaire (QS), the pro-Québec independence, so called “left” party, has joined with the big business Liberal Party in urging Bill 19 be amended to allow children under 14 to work as farm labourers.
QS labour critic Alexandre Leduc said he was “moved” by the UPA president’s arguments that turning children into wage-laborers is a good thing “for parents who can’t afford to send their children to day camp.”
"Defending and justifying child labour as an economic necessity didn’t work to preserve it in the 1800s—but not anymore,” notes ethics professor Dr. Jim Ruddy. “The general approvals of the proposals in Bill 19 seem to make hiding behind the straw man of ‘economic necessity’ enough to make child labour not only acceptable now, but a positive good. Too bad for us and too bad for the kids.
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