Work and children seem like two concepts that are hardly reconcilable. Yet, the families of farmers will tell that from a very young age, the little ones are already initiated into the rites and jobs so that they know how everything works and ultimately inherit the land. However, the Industrial Revolution showed the worst of the employment of kids who went to destroy their health in factories or mines. Consequently, these images led to a ban on work for those under 12 in most Western countries.
Or, some nations were slow to protect their youth. American and European companies took advantage of this to have these little hands in Asia or Africa to manufacture clothing, electronic products, etc. Although whistleblower campaigns have decreased child labor around the world, it has increased for the first time in 20 years because of covid-19. They numbered more than 222 million in 2021. The precariousness brought by the pandemic has led many families to push their offspring to bring in some dough. Except that 10% of these little ones are doing work considered at risk of injury or even death if left unprotected.
While significant increases have occurred in Africa, all continents are affected, including North America. Indeed, Canada and the United States are experiencing labor shortages in all fields. For example, employers are employing children as young as 11 and as old as 16. In one small canteen in Quebec, 7 out of 32 employees are under 15. The Canadian province has no minimum age requirement for hiring unlike Europe where the minimum age is 15. The only rule is that applicants under the age of 14 must have written parental permission. However, it seems that many companies no longer ask for it.
Amongst others, very often, it is the young people themselves who express a desire for work to get pocket money in addition to helping local businesses. Parents agree, arguing that this is a first foot in adult life. Employers see them as motivated candidates who are less demanding and jaded than previous generations. Yet, are 11- and 12-year-olds capable of making decisions for their well-being? Will they really be able to say "no" to requests for overtime? Or evening work?
A Necessary Framework
What's more, this wave of child hires comes with consequences. The Commission des normes, de l'équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST) has noted an increase in accidents among miners (720 in 2017 to 1004 in 2021). They were 150 to be injured, sometimes seriously, in 2020 alone. This reality is starting to worry many observers who feel like they are seeing exploitation by employers of these docile young people willing to do anything for a little pocket money. Moreover, at the beginning of June 2022, the Minister of Labor and Employment expressed his concern about this issue and did not rule out legislation to tag the work of 12 to 14 year olds.
This ethical issue is not unique to Quebec. In their neighbors to the south, the United States, more and more states are considering relaxing laws on child labor with the intention of filling positions. A reality that worries experts about sleep, study and lack of essential free time to recharge. Not to mention the greater risk of dropping out among those who have difficulties in school and more ease in their workplace.
So some are calling on the U.S. federal government to legislate to avoid seeing images of factories run by minors again. A tug of war that will be played out between industries that argue they need labor to subsist and a school system that fears slippage and the loss of young talent who will choose jobs over education.
Photo credit: teamtime- depositphotos
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