The bill on the “supervision” of child labor, currently before the National Assembly, is aptly named: the government intends to mark out – not to say trivialize – a phenomenon which, elsewhere, would provoke debate.
The law aims first to set a minimum age of eligibility for employment. Under current Quebec law, a 5-year-old boy could work full-time (since compulsory school attendance does not begin until age 6). It would be enough if one of his parents agreed. This legal absurdity will therefore be corrected, with the minimum age now set at 14.
Who compares himself consoles himself? In most European countries, you start working at 16; in some Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, including Mexico and Turkey, to 15 years. Fourteen is the minimum age in some US states like New York – during school time.
The Quebec bill limits the number of hours worked per week to 17 hours. Again, the resemblance is striking to New York State, where the weekly limit is 6 p.m. But, unlike young New Yorkers, Quebeckers aged 14 or 15 will not be entitled to a mandatory weekly day off1. This is not provided for, in any case, in the text of Bill 19.
This number of 17 hours, taken from a recent report by the Workforce Labor Advisory Committee, is puzzling. Because 17 hours of work and 25 hours of lessons (which most high school students do) is 42. Which means that the children’s week will be longer than that of their parents, the CNESST estimating that the normal week work is 40 hours. Should we conclude that an hour of math or French requires less effort than an hour at Tim Hortons?
The bill also does not mention the Civil Code. Since the 1990s, the latter has turned 14-year-olds into adults when it comes to work. Since a minor is “deemed to be of age” for employment purposes, a 14-year-old girl does not need her parents’ consent.
It never moved anyone. And the bill won’t change that much.
Some restaurateurs believe the government shouldn’t set a minimum age, which was 16 until the 1980s. Labor shortages would force them to recruit younger and younger workers, they say to be worth. They fail to say that these little workers cost them less than the big ones. Teens are certainly paid the same as their adult colleagues, but the contributions are lower (since employers are required to make payments to the Quebec Pension Plan starting at age 18 only).
To justify its intervention, the government invokes, on the one hand, the increased risk of dropping out of school and, on the other hand, the health and safety of children. From 2017 to 2021, 447 workers aged 16 and under were victims of accidents or occupational diseases recognized by the Commission for Standards, Equity, Health and Safety at Work (CNESST), a figure that inevitably underestimates the magnitude of the problem.
In this regard, the risks of harassment and sexual assault are never mentioned. Yet a 14-year-old child enters the workforce two years before reaching the age to consent to a sexual relationship with an adult. Relations with an employer are already sanctioned, of course, but very young workers are surrounded by colleagues of all ages. Did you say unsolicited dick pic? There is worse.
The CNESST opened 173 files for sexual harassment from 2018 to 2021. During this period, it recognized 118 cases of acute stress caused by sexual assault in people of all ages. Although the available statistics are not broken down by age group, an access to information request allows me to affirm that at least one person under the age of 16 has made a claim to the CNESST for harassment or sexual assault since 2013.
All these subjects could have given rise to a debate. Pragmatists would have argued that children must learn the value of hard work early on; human rights defenders would have pointed out that child labor undermines their rights to education and health, with accidents at work – unavoidable – preventing them from going to school. For that matter, they could have snarled at the purpose of child labor: in underprivileged areas, how many teenagers help their parents financially? The answer may not be what we hope for. This would have been an opportunity to talk about social classes and general interest. But the debate will not take place. In Quebec, we don’t like chicanery.