For a reform that respects children’s rights

The press and Radio-Canada recently released disturbing findings about the employment situation of young people and their safety at work in Quebec. The situation is all the more worrying in a pandemic context, in light of labor shortages. The question I ask myself is this: is this just the tip of the iceberg? How many don’t speak?

Posted at 2:00 PM

Sarah Dennene

Sarah Dennene
Children’s rights lawyer and advisor

Quebec has no minimum age to work. Children under the age of 14 are allowed to work with parental consent. According to article 84.2 of the Labor Standards Act† The same law will also impose certain restrictions to reconcile work with the obligation to attend school.

Although the Youth Protection Act protects against exploitation, there remains a worrying ambiguity in the application of Article 84.2 of the Labor Standards Act† Indeed, the responsibility for protecting children is left to the good judgment of employers, and even children in certain situations. Who can judge the disproportionate nature of a job, the complexity of the equipment to be used to perform the tasks, or the ease for children to manage situations such as sexism or productivity pressures? Is it conceivable that the answer may differ from person to person and from industry to industry? Moreover, by taking the place of young people, is there sufficient knowledge of the rights and possibilities in a problematic work situation, such as the threat of dismissal? Is there an effective way to report a situation to someone trained in the specific needs and rights of children?

It must be clear that we are not exercising a right that we are not aware of, and a right without an accessible, effective and appropriate recourse to sanctions is simply symbolic of these young people.

An abolitionist approach that would be to forbid everything is undesirable for two reasons. The first is that it encourages the creation of an uncontrolled parallel system where abuse takes place. The second is that not all types of work are necessarily harmful to children’s well-being and, let’s not forget, young people want to be able to work and we need to listen to them. Rather, I propose here a reflection in favor of a reform that respects children’s rights.

In this regard, it may be useful to refer to international standards. There are the conventions of the International Labor Organization. However, the groundbreaking instrument for children and young people under the age of 18 is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which positions him as a holder of rights and not as an object of protection. It is a balance between the protection of children and their right to be actors participating in their protection. In other words, young people can inform decision-makers about the measures to be taken so that they are easily accessible to them.

A reform with young people and children, but what a big step towards a Quebec worthy of them! Utopian, will you tell me? No. The tools are there, you just have to give yourself the tools.

It is not possible here to silently pass over a reason why certain young people and children work, in a context of rising costs of living that are not decreasing. Children work to help their families meet basic needs such as housing and food. The answer to the problem seems to me to be a social choice. What society do we want for children? A society that accepts that its children are obligated – and not faced with a real choice – to work to provide for the vital needs of their families, or a society with budget policies that take into account their needs and their rights, sensitive to their reality , which are mainly focused on their full development, one of the results of which would make it possible to improve financial assistance to families and children? I sincerely believe in this second choice. I believe in a Quebec that is truly worthy of its children.

The current system is aimed at adults. It is designed by adults for working adults. Can we imagine a communication line dedicated to working children, specific training for young people and employers, but also stricter rules for protection and admission to the labor market depending on the type of work? The answer is complex, because the phenomenon is just as complex. This topic also suggests the creation of a “child advocate” mechanism with a broad mandate that can intervene and demand accountability in matters affecting children, and this with the children.

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