By Craig and Marc Kielburger
Ryan Pearce's very first job was also his last.
Pearce, 19, loved working with tools and was thrilled to land a gig in construction. Three weeks into the job, the Toronto resident was working in the basement of a house when it collapsed. By the time rescuers dug him out, he was dead.
A year and a half later, Pearce's parents are still fighting for better regulations and training for young workers. They want to save other families from losing a loved one.
Watching your child head off to their first job is a proud moment for any parent. It can also be terrifying. Stories like Pearce's are every parent's worst nightmare.
We're fortunate that Canadians don't face the youth labour problems we've witnessed abroad. There are no young workers chained to looms in this country. But that doesn't mean there aren't any problems.
In 2014, alone, almost 8,000 youth ages 15 to 19 were injured on the job in Canada. Another 13 lost their lives, according to the most recent statistics from the Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada. Many parents don't realize their children may not legally be old enough to do some jobs.
In early June, the Canadian government signed International Labour Organization convention 138. This law sets 15 as the minimum age to enter the formal workplace. Children 13 to 15 may do light jobs that aren't hazardous and don't interfere with school, like working in a store. And of course, kids under 13 can still babysit or mow lawns. But if the tasks are considered hazardous, such as working with chemicals or heavy machinery, the minimum age rises to 18.
Some Canadian provincial labour laws don't meet this standard and must now be amended.
There are no national statistics on "underage labourers" in Canada. However, provincial studies show the problem exists.
The Parkland Institute, a University of Alberta research group, recently found that as many as 70 per cent of youth ages 12 to 14 in Alberta are illegally employed. Back in 2008, we were shocked to read an investigative report by The Walrus magazine that found evidence of children as young as eight years old working--and being injured on the job -- in Quebec.
At 19, Pearce was old enough to work on hazardous construction sites. But his parents say he wasn't taught necessary safety precautions for his job. "There are so many cases of young people who have been hurt and killed because they weren't aware of the danger and weren't given the proper training," says Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).
Young people often don't realize they have the right to say "no" if they believe working conditions are unsafe. Even if they are aware, many won't speak out for fear of losing their jobs.
Beyond safety concerns, youth are also at higher risk for other forms of exploitation, the CLC tells us. For example, Alberta's Parkland report found that younger workers "routinely face wage theft and are employed for more hours than they are legally allowed to work."
Tackling the labour issues young people face in Canada means improving workplace inspections and enforcing laws, Yussuff says. He adds that federal and provincial governments can do a better job of educating employers, parents and youth about workplace safety and labour laws.
There are some positive examples for all provinces to follow. This summer, the Ontario Ministry of Labour is conducting safety inspection blitzes, and raising awareness among parents and youth about labour rights and safe workplaces through initiatives that include a video contest.
We encourage youth to empower themselves by researching and asking about their rights.
Getting a job is a major milestone in every young person's journey to adulthood and independence. It needs to be a time of pride, not fear or tragedy.
Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit we.org for more information.