A Child’s Right to Work?

Image by the author Edward Van Daalen at the Kigali Global Gathering of Working Children in January 2023.

On March 28 2023, Quebec’s Minister of Labour Jean Boulet introduced draft Bill 19 which aims to prohibit and penalize all work done by children under the age of 14 years, save for a few exceptions such as baby-sitting, paper rounds, work in the entertainment industry, or in small family businesses. The bill is to be adopted by the summer, but as it currently stands, there is no general minimum age to work in Quebec. This means that children of all ages are, on paper, able to exercise the right to work, understood here as the right to freedom to earn income through non-exploitative work as recognised by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  

Like all other human rights, the right to work is not absolute. Quebec’s ‘Act respecting labour standards strictly regulates this right for children in light of their obligation to attend school, as well as by other measures aimed at protecting them from harm and exploitation. Children below the age of 14 require parental consent for example, and no child can be employed during school and night hours, or in any job that poses a risk to their health or physical and moral development. The prohibition of work under the age of 14, as proposed by Bill 19, can be explained as the expansion of these protective restrictions. However, like any other legal restriction of a human right, it should be based on rigorous research and sound justifications. A closer look at the events and reports that informed the bill raises serious questions about the extent to which this is indeed the case. Especially since those who are most affected by the measures, indeed working children themselves, were left out of  the process.  

International Standards 

Before delving into the rationale behind the bill and the absence of working children’s own voices in the drafting process, it is important to note that Canada has ratified several binding international conventions relevant to child labour. In particular, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) 1973 Minimum Age Convention which were respectively ratified in 1991 and 2016. By means of the former, Canada has committed itself to protect children from economic exploitation. By means of the latter, it is supposed to set a general minimum age to work at 13 years for work that is done outside school hours, and 16 years for full time employment.  

Under the country’s federal system, however, labour issues are primarily a provincial competence and the labour codes of most provinces and territories do not meet the ILO standards, as is the case for Quebec. The province has declared it considers itself to be bound to both conventions, which in itself would be a legitimate reason to introduce a minimum age to work. Yet, other motifs are driving Bill 19, and should therefore be considered on their own merit. 

Quebec’s Child Labour Law 

Quebec has a long history of child labour, but it obviously does not stand alone. There is consensus amongst scholars that children have participated in work throughout human history, and in all parts of the world including Canada. It only became a ‘modern’ social problem during the industrial revolution when industrialists turned to pauper children to work in their factories, often under deplorable conditions. Currently, child labour is commonly associated with labour exploitation of young children in the Global South. Type the two words into any online search engine and an array of very young, Brown and Black children working in dangerous and denigrating places, such as mines, brick kilns and garbage dumps, meets the eye. Yet following the standards of the ILO Minimum Age Convention, many children in Quebec are in child labour too. 

Whereas for most of the 20th century it was practically forbidden to employ a child under the age of 16, this ‘strict’ system was abandoned in 1981 and replaced with the current ‘flexible’ one in which there is no general minimum age. When, at the end of the 1990s, the Quebec government reviewed this legislative framework, it observed that this flexible system functioned well within Quebec’s socio-economic and cultural context. It was deemed to secure a delicate balance between, on the one hand, the needs, interests, rights, responsibilities, and autonomy of children and their parents, and, on the other, their protection from harm and access to other basic rights, in particular education. It was concluded that: “Quebec legislation authorises the work of children while respecting their dignity and the learning of their autonomy, and confirms the importance of the role of parents in the development of children [and] provides for specific intervention mechanisms to protect the interests of children when circumstances so require”. 

A Minimum Age to Work 

This ‘empowerment approach,’ which seeks to recognise and facilitate children’s agency in light of protective measures, is virtually absent from the 2022 report of the independent Comité consultatif du travail et de la main-d’œuvre (CCTM) on the basis of which the government drafted Bill 19. Instead, working children are portrayed as mere victims of external forces. The report was commissioned in the wake of public commotion over child labour that erupted during the summer of 2022, after a young boy got seriously injured from falling off a quad vehicle while working at a holiday resort in Quebec. The incident was emblematic of wider concerns which the CCTM report identifies as the main reasons for why Quebec needs to introduce a minimum age to work set at 14: the current labour shortage that leads to an increasing number of economically active children aged 11 to 14; a subsequent rise in work-related injuries; and, lastly, concerns over an increase in high school dropouts. Whereas neither the CCTM report nor Bill 19 explains why 14 years was chosen as the minimum age to work, it is in line with Article 156 of Quebec Civil Code which states that “A minor 14 years of age or over is deemed to be of full age for all acts pertaining to his employment or to the practice of his craft or profession.” 

A strong influx of younger children on the labour market and a subsequent rise in work injuries are, of course, very serious matters. As is rightly mentioned in the report, poor and marginalised families are generally disproportionally affected by economic hardship such as the current inflation. Children of these families have a higher chance of starting work at an earlier age and of having to work longer hours. This could lead to a higher chance of getting injured, as well as to negative effects on their schooling, leading to even greater inequality of opportunities. 

However, the CCTM report also mentions that there is actually very little data available about the working conditions and the nature of injuries of children in Quebec, particularly regarding those primarily targeted by the bill, i.e. workers under 14 years. It remains furthermore unclear why Quebec’s current flexible child labour framework, with its array of protective provisions, was judged to be incapable of dealing with the increase of children on the labour market. For instance, extra resources could have been allocated to make sure children are not employed in work that is dangerous or in any other way unsuitable, instead of excluding an entire group from work.  

Further controversy remains over the decision to exclude children working in the entertainment industry (film, theatre, dance, music, etc.) from the bill. These children are currently not covered by Quebec’s labour code, which in practice means that they are often working during school hours. This calls into question the primacy of education in the decision to prohibit other children from working.  

Judging by the speed with which the recommendations by the CCTM were copied and introduced at the National Assembly in the form of Bill 19, it appears that the government was uninterested in getting a more profound understanding of the situation before overhauling its child labour laws. While some employers who have expressed concerns about the viability of their business will be heard by parliament before the bill will be adopted, working children themselves remain ignored and absent from the whole discussion and legislative process. 

A Right to be Heard 

One of the main principles of the children’s rights framework is that besides a right to be protected, children also have a right to exercise their agency, or in other words the right to be heard and participate in matters concerning them. There are good arguments to be made for why working children in particular are capable of understanding, expressing, and problematizing their own experiences, insights and opinions about their jobs, their education, their family and other aspects of their working lives. Despite the obvious risks involved, work can also be beneficial with the potential to contribute to a sense of dignity, responsibility, autonomy and ownership over one’s life. It is therefore no surprise that working children have a long history of political participation and have even organized themselves in many parts of the world.  

A good example of the political participation of working children is the Kigali Global Gathering of Working Children that was organized by two child rights NGOs earlier this year. The meeting brought together delegations of working children from 16 countries to share experiences about their work, their school, and their lives in general. The meeting showed that if you take children seriously and provide them with the space and tools to express themselves, they are more than capable of drawing from their experiences recommendations for law and policy-making that will affect them. In the ‘Kigali Declaration’ that was drafted and adopted by these children at the end of the gathering, they made clear what they wanted:  “Protect us from labour exploitation, harsh conditions and risks, and allow children to do suitable dignified work” 

The countries in which these children live and work, such as Bolivia, have all ratified the ILO Minimum Age Convention but are, unlike Canada, under real political and economic pressure from international organizations and Western countries to adhere to the convention by legally prohibiting all work by children under the age of 13. What these working children are asking for in their declaration instead resembles the situation that Bill 19 aims to change in Quebec: a legal framework that respects their right to work, while safeguarding safe and suitable working conditions and time for schooling and leisure. 

While it could very well be that Quebec’s younger children have very different experiences, views and demands when it comes to their work, neither the CCTM nor the government showed any real interest in consulting them before deciding to take their jobs, and more importantly their right to work, away from them. Now that the Minister of Labour Jean Boulet has stated that “the door remains open” for stakeholders to express their views about Bill 19 as parliamentary debates continue, it is perhaps time to reach out to those most affected. 

Edward van Daalen is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism (CHRLP) at McGill University, where he mainly works on the intersections of international law, development, and children’s rights. He holds a PhD in law from the University of Geneva, for which he studied the role and resistance of organised working children in the development of international child labour law. He is currently editing a manuscript based on his dissertation. He is the founder and organiser of two monthly seminars: the ‘Children and Work Research Series’ (www.childrenandwork.net) and ‘Eating Popcorn like a Lawyer: A Law and Film Seminar’. 

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