Globalisation comes home to roost:
Child labour in Campbell’s B.C.

February 21, 2004

Bill 37, the child labour legislation adopted by the B.C. Liberals' during this past year, has sent a clear message to teenage workers across the province: You have been made redundant; there are now new, more easily abused workers in town; no matter how close you thought you were to completing your 500 training-waged hours, the bottom just got lower. Thanks to Minister of Labour Graham Bruce and Gordon Campbell’s B.C. Liberals bringing in the most regressive child labour bill in North America, 12-year-old children can now work and, hell, they might not even think that six bucks sucks.

The new legislation is a clear attack on all working people, as the government encourages a “race to the bottom,” complete with the economic exploitation of children. Bill 37, which was passed late last year, allows for children as young as 12 to work in British Columbia. This new child labour law permits children to be employed in any occupation with almost no legal distinction being made between them and adult workers. As early as Grade 6, children can work in dangerous or physically intensive conditions in restaurants, door-to-door sales, industry, and agriculture.

B.C. and Ralph Klein’s Alberta are the only Canadian provinces that allow 12 year olds to work. But B.C. trumps all provinces by having the longest work days and longest work weeks for children. When in school, child workers are allowed to work 20 hours a week when attending school five days a week. In communities where school boards have implemented “flexible” four day school weeks -- in order to accommodate educational funding cuts -- children can work up to 35 hours per week. Now that weekday once spent idly “learning” can be spent putting in a seven-hour shift at the mill, learning the hard knocks of global capitalism. There is precious little regulatory protection regarding the length of hours child workers can labour. For instance, the legislation does not state that children cannot work early morning shifts, during school hours, or the graveyard shift. Even in the libertarian Alberta, Klein lets the kids off at nine.

In 2002, Canada signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which clearly states that it is the responsibility of the state to protect children from economic exploitation and from working in conditions that could be hazardous to their health or detrimental to their education. Bill 37 clearly disregards this UN convention and shifts the responsibility for the protection of child workers from the government and the employer solely to the parent, who is now responsible for making sure their child’s workplace is safe. This process of liberalisation and deregulation of employment standards and labour codes is familiar to workers in the Third World, where it is clear that children of the working class and the poor are those whose labour is used to produce profit for capital. In B.C. the results will be similar, producing an even larger class divide and bringing the chickens of globalisation home to roost, so to speak.

Bill 37 can be seen as part of a wide-ranging attack on working class and low-income families in B.C, including the contracting out of union jobs, cuts to health, education, social housing, and rent deregulation. And a glaring lack of affordable childcare, coupled with welfare cuts, will clearly force the poorest families in British Columbia to send their children to work in order to survive. As the 3 o’clock bell rings at elementary schools, the kids in Point Grey will pile into SUVs heading for soccer or violin lessons, while in Surrey-Guildford the kids will pile into school buses, not headed for home but for a little “homework” in the fields, learning about Canadian multiculturalism and equality. Sadly, it will be the parents of the latter who will be held morally responsible by the corporate apologists of this government when, not if, these children are injured or killed in the workplace or when being overworked causes them to drop out of school.
The child labour bill is so regressive that not even the strongest champions of free enterprise and union bashing wanted to take credit for it. For instance, the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, the Retail Council of Canada, and the Business Council of B.C. have all stated that there were not actively campaigning for the use of child labour. Who was “actively campaigning”? Well, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce said that the ability to use the labour of children under 15 was on their “wish-list.” Gordon Campbell, apparently, is a genie that grants more than three wishes, as long as those doing the wishing are those doing the donating to the Liberal Party. The B.C. Agricultural Council was also wishing hard for this legislation, and lobbying even harder.
The B.C. Agricultural Council -- whose mandate is to strengthen the competitive nature and increase the profits for B.C. agriculture -- claims that some British Columbian products, particularly fruits and berries, are not as profitable unless they are subsidised by cheap labour. The farming industry in British Columbia already has one of the most exploited and casual work forces in the country, made up primarily of immigrants from South Asia and migrant, and often French-speaking, farm labour. Together with Bill 37, the government also entirely removed farm labour from labour code protection. In fact, the majority of farm workers already do piece work and do not make minimum wage, receive overtime pay, benefits, or holidays, but now this wage slavery has been codified by the B.C. Liberals. The Council had been actively lobbying the Campbell government to allow for the import of temporary workers from Mexico, who could be more easily abused and economically exploited. Bruce, however, opted to further impoverish the current workforce and further open the fields up to child labour. Bill 37, was, above all, a gift to big agro-business in this province.

Globally, international capital -- from Nike in Indonesia to Kathie Lee in Central America -- has always reaped the profits of child labour. We should not be too surprised that the impacts of neo-liberal imperialist globalisation (a.k.a. capitalism) are hitting the poorest here at home. This is one element of the “race to the bottom,” as governments facilitate corporate exploitation of workers and natural resources throughout the world.

The child labour legislation of Gordon Campbell’s government is a concrete issue around which to organise as part of the global movement for social justice. And to avoid simple moralising about “the children,” we must also demand jobs with justice for adults, and quality, free education for children.

Jobs for adults. No kidding.

Gina Whitfield works with “Free Campbell’s Kids”: The Campaign to End Legislated Child Labour in B.C.

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