Child’s Play

Why hasn’t Quebec re-established a minimum age for employment?

Illustration by Leslie Supnet

Most summer mornings, Luc wakes at five. An hour later, he boards one of the yellow school buses that take him and dozens of other children from the working-class Montreal neighbourhood of Saint-Michel to a strawberry farm somewhere. He doesn’t know exactly where it is, doesn’t know his employer’s name either. But he does know he will pocket $55 at the end of his ten-hour day. He thinks that is good money for a thirteen-year-old; he gives half to his mother and saves the rest to buy his own clothes.

It would be illegal to employ Luc (a pseudonym), or any other child under fourteen, for ten hours in many provinces. In Ontario and New Brunswick, for example, the minimum age is fourteen; in Alberta and BC, where twelve-year-olds can legally work, the shift is too long. Quebec, however, has no minimum age requirement and no limit on hours. The only restriction is that children under fourteen need their parents’ written permission. Elementary school children can legally work as long as they attend class during the day.

Child labour is widespread in Quebec. In 2005, Gilles Pronovost, a sociologist at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, asked 1,847 children in French-language public schools if they “worked for money.” At age eleven, one in four answered yes; at fourteen, one in two. While it is entirely possible most are babysitting or mowing lawns, some are evidently picking fruit, collecting garbage, or working in restaurants and factories.

Changes to Quebec’s child labour legislation in the 1990s went largely unnoticed in the province and, a fortiori, the rest of Canada, but some restrictions were put in place. The law now states that schoolchildren cannot work overnight (11 p.m. to 6 a.m.), except as performing artists, camp staff, or newspaper carriers. It also says kids cannot hold jobs likely to hinder their education, health, or “physical or moral development.” They can’t be hired to wash skyscraper windows, toil in mines, or detonate explosives.

These somewhat meagre legal developments are an improvement (if one believes in regulation of the labour market and the rule of law) over the situation that prevailed in 1991, when I first started writing about this issue for a Montreal magazine. I learned then that child labour had been legal for more than a decade. Bizarrely, this had escaped public attention. Quebec, one of the first Canadian provinces to have sought to protect child workers in the nineteenth century, scrapped its minimum age requirement in 1979 in the name of equal rights. The then Parti Québécois government considered that the 1974 Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms had banned discrimination on the basis of age and adopted an occupational health bill to protect all workers. As a consequence, children could legally work.

When I started looking into it, I found workers under sixteen (Quebec’s traditional age limit) in factories and shops of all sorts. One boy I interviewed had spent the summer selling ice cream fifty hours a week. “When you’re eleven,” he said, “money is important.” More worrying, I discovered that dozens of children had been compensated for occupational injuries and fatalities. My article caused a media flurry. I was convinced that the Liberals who were then in office in Quebec City would re-establish a minimum age, especially after the government asked four advisory boards for policy proposals. I did not suspect that the government’s advisory board on youth, the Conseil permanent de la jeunesse, a group of young people aged fifteen to thirty, would launch a crusade against the age restriction, arguing that this would only resolve a “problem of conscience” without tackling broader issues like parental responsibilities. Their report implied a disregard for individual boys and girls purportedly protected by the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. It noted, for instance, that in one school district “only 1.3 percent” of high school students working nights had eight-hour shifts after 10 p.m. Only?

When the government floated the idea of imposing a weekly fifteen-hour work limit, the council again defended youth employment. In a second report, it argued that Quebec City should focus instead on enforcing existing legislation prohibiting children from working during school hours. Its tone was haughty. “Is it the role of the state to act in lieu of youths and their parents, publicly suggesting that youths are irresponsible when it comes to their work and their studies?” The answer, of course, is yes. The state does consider children irresponsible, which is why they cannot legally drink or refuse a blood transfusion. But no one could muster the political courage to say so, or to add that it was for the children’s own good. At the time, Matthias Rioux, then PQ labour minister, told me that hard-up parents regularly confided that they needed the cash their offspring were bringing home. He made it sound as if his party could win more votes by ignoring, rather than fighting, child labour.

Then as now, in Quebec, as in the developing world, the issue is linked to poverty. But when poverty is mentioned in this debate, it is usually to legitimize employing ten-year-old carpet makers in the Third World. Some 158 million children aged five to fourteen work around the globe, according to unicef, but I had always thought Quebec was fundamentally different. Its state, particularly its welfare state, was there to help needy parents. This new narrative of equal rights sounded to me like a sophisticated retelling of the old Dickensian story of child exploitation.

“Poor children rarely have rich parents,” remarks Lorraine Pagé, the former head of the main teachers’ union, at the time called the Centrale de l’enseignement du Québec (ceq). She notes that many proponents of deregulation also use ideas that hark back to the first half of the twentieth century, when the Catholic Church campaigned against compulsory schooling. “They sound like the priests who maintained that the state should not interfere with the ‘divine right’ of parents to decide for their children,” says Pagé. The ceq, and the province’s main employers’ group, the Conseil du patronat du Québec (cpq), drafted a voluntary code of ethics for companies that hire kids. Employers were advised not to take on workers under thirteen. Yet there is evidence that children are still working — and injuring themselves on the job — well before that age.

According to Quebec’s occupational health and safety board, the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (csst), 123 children under the age of sixteen were hurt at work in 2006. The figure rose to 147 in 2007, and the youngest person to receive worker’s compensation was eight. (The csst refuses to reveal whether it was a boy or a girl, and will not specify the type of work, in the name of privacy rights.) As startling as these statistics are, they nonetheless underestimate the problem, because many youths do not know it is illegal for, say, a restaurant owner to tell a cook who has chopped off a fingertip just to “take the rest of the day off.”

Justin Paris, a Montreal university student, didn’t even know the csst existed when he started working as a mover. At sixteen, he was six-foot-one, tall for his age, but his right shoulder soon started to ache. “It hurt so much I couldn’t lift anything,” he recalls. A physiotherapist told him to hold off for three weeks, but he never knew his employer should have compensated him for the lost wages. To measure the true extent of occupational accidents among cegep (post-secondary, pre-university) students, the Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (irsst) and the Saguenay-based Groupe écobes interviewed 229 youths aged seventeen and eighteen. They found that for every work-related injury reported, 2.5 went unreported. This suggests that annual occupational accidents involving children under sixteen could amount to 365, one for every day of the year.

Many youths are also unaware that they have a right to refuse dangerous work, according to Karine Brunet, a social work student employed by Droit de cité, a Montreal community group. “They’re utterly surprised when they find out.” Brunet makes a point of telling young employees this when she visits small businesses unannounced to talk about occupational health. Interestingly, when she asks whether they have ever injured themselves at work, virtually no one says yes. But when she asks if they have ever cut or burned themselves in the kitchen, or stumbled down the stairs on their way to the stockroom, everyone, it seems, has a story.

Young workers are accident prone. Quebec’s occupational health and safety board estimates that youths (defined as fifteen to twenty-five) are one and a half times more likely to be injured at work than older employees. “Many people think youths have more accidents because they are young, period,” says Élise Ledoux of the irsst. “But it’s not because they are risk takers. It’s because they are doing dangerous jobs. They manipulate heavy loads, even when they work at Tim Hortons, and handle chemicals when they work as cleaners.”

Occupational health hazards are compounded by long work hours, which lead to other difficulties. At École secondaire Édouard-Montpetit, an east-end Montreal high school I visited recently, two students in grade nine and ten, who work twenty hours a week, said they regularly fall asleep at their desks because they are simply too tired to stay awake. One of them was suspended for two days because of this. “I wasn’t even sleeping,” protested Emilie, who started as a restaurant hostess at age fifteen. “I was just resting.”

Is it finally time, then, for the government to step in? Ghislain Dufour, the former cpq employers’ group president who negotiated the code of ethics, remains opposed to state interventionism. “It’s not my style,” he says. When I suggest that the state might have protected the eight-year-old who shows up as a work casualty in the latest statistics, Dufour counters, “Did this child cut a toe while mowing a lawn in flip-flops? We just don’t know.” Besides, he believes, it is a question of scale. “If we were talking about forty-two eight-year-old children, it might be a different story.”

When workers die on the job, inspectors are sent to investigate. Their reports do not reveal the victim’s name or age, again in the interest of privacy rights, but those details are found in local newspapers. Clearly, even young adolescents have been killed over the past few years. Maxime Degray, thirteen, had picked corn since dawn in Valleyfield, in western Quebec. It was a late-August Friday, a few days before school was to resume. He fell off a slow-moving trailer loaded with 400 kilograms of corn cobs, and slipped under a wheel. Alexandre Fournier, a fourteen-year-old garbage collector, was waiting for a co-worker alongside a dump truck in Grande-Vallée, in the Gaspé. It was January, already dark on the quiet country highway. A car driver did not see him. The boy was crushed against the truck. Mathieu Desjardins-Levac did odd jobs at a sawmill in Rivière-Rouge, northwest of Montreal. One day, he was sent to the basement to clean a conveyor belt. A co-worker later found his dead body trapped in the machinery. He was sixteen.

Other risks can jeopardize a child’s “physical or moral development,” as the labour standards legislation puts it. But they are more difficult to quantify. I landed my first summer job at fourteen, working in a Montreal-area factory that made cartons for milk and cigarettes. I had lied about my age, claiming to be sixteen, then the minimum legal age. One day, two male co-workers forced me to kneel before a third man, who pulled down his zipper and said I would have to suck him off. Nothing happened; it was a joke. But I felt humiliated. When I tell this story to friends, they sometimes share their own anecdotes. For instance, a young woman, now a university student, recalled obscene phone calls when she was a fifteen-year-old waitress doing night shifts at Dunkin’ Donuts. “If the risk of abuse exists at home and at school, why shouldn’t it exist at work? ” asks Esther Paquet, a social work professional and Université de Montréal program coordinator.

Canada has not ratified the International Labour Organization’s convention urging parties to “raise progressively” the minimum age for employment. It has, however, ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls on participants to set a minimum age. But the convention “is not solidly embedded in Canadian law, in policy, or in the national psyche,” as the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights noted in 2007. The children of Quebec may find comfort in the fact that they will one day enjoy the protection of their province’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. The elderly, the Charter explicitly states, have “a right to protection against any form of exploitation.” Be patient, kids.

Michel Arseneault