Before becoming known for famous quotations like “Hey New York, turns out I’m part Jewish” and “You’re sleeping on the couch,” Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was known for helping to make famous the maxim “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child”; in the lead-up to Gordon Campbell’s 2010 Olympics, though, it looks like it may take a child to raise a village. As eager youngsters head back to school this week, they do so at the end of the first summer under B.C.’s backward new laissez (les enfants) faire child labour laws. With legislation passed last November making the specific laws and standards governing B.C. children in the workplace the most toothless in North America (including every corner of George Bush’s United States), bags will be under eyes as well as on backs as children as young as twelve are forced to juggle working lives with school.
The specifics regarding the deregulation of child labour in British Columbia are absolutely breathtaking in their nefariousness and regressive gall; as I’ve said before elsewhere, it’s law-making (or dismantling) that puts the “Dicks in Victoria” back in “Dickensian labour legislation of a Victorian bent.” Children as young as twelve are now permitted to work 20 hours every school-week (35 hours in weeks without school, or in the growing number of districts using a four-day week); they require the permission of only one parent to do so; they may work at any time during the day, including graveyard shifts; the only restrictions on what jobs they may work are set by federal legislation governing certain heavy resource extraction like mining and lumber, and by special rules in the film industry. Perhaps most frightening is the fact that the province has shifted from an investigations-based system of assessing the safety of workplaces employing children to a complaints-based system. All that means that not only do we expect a 12-year-old fixing the deep fryer at 2 a.m. to do so for six bucks an hour, but we expect her to assess the safety of her own workplace and, if she feels uncomfortable, we expect her to fill out the paper work to deal with it; perhaps she’ll do so in between games of truth or dare and bouts of calling — and then hanging up on – the boy she likes.
Campbell’s assaults on the safety of B.C. children are, of course, to be found at the centre of a whole tangle of legislation which makes the child labour issue that much more explosive. Like no government in recent memory, the B.C. Liberals have gutted the services offered to women in the province; as Women’s Centres lose their funding and accordingly shut down, and as more mothers are driven off the welfare rolls, feminists fear an increasing tendency among women to stay in abusive domestic situations. In an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire-esque twist, many of these desperate parents will feel increasing pressure to send their children into dangerous working positions as breadwinners.
In addition, Campbell’s “training wage” (a two-tiered minimum-wage structure in which young workers are paid only six dollars an hour in their “first” 500 hours of work), coupled with his demolition of the province’s tuition freeze, has indicated that this government is hell bent on stratifying the youth of the province along exacerbated, ever more striking class lines. Add to this the coming Olympics; an international event that has – in both Sydney and Athens of recent infamy – led to the erosion of labour rights in the rushed and dangerous lead-up to the big show. Think of the huge number of deaths and injuries that preceded the games in Athens this summer due to poor planning and sped-up construction. Now imagine your son or daughter on clean-up duty. It is well-established that young workers in their teens and early twenties are the most prone to death and injury in the workplace; imagine now adding sixth and seventh graders to the mix.
So the morning after Labour Day (and Child Labour Summer), our kids head off to school in order to learn, socialize, exercise and smoke. Some of their families will celebrate the first week of school by spending Family Night eating at their favourite restaurant. Others will celebrate by washing dishes at theirs. And as school starts, the artful codger in Legislature has a message for the latter: “Consider yourself/At home/consider yourself/part of the furniture/we’ve taken to you/ so strong/ It’s clear/we’re/going to get along.”