Sunday, March 25, 2007

Child Labor in Canada

Yes, that's how unbelievable it was when I read the title of this post after I wrote it. There seems to be a mistake here. Child Labor in the developed West is not only outlawed but these countries also dedicate resources to stop this practice in other parts of the world, specially Asia. But let me tell you, it is not.

Gold Paved Roads
It is a not a secret that Canada's crude oil reserves are one of the largest in the world, only second to Saudi Arabia. One province in particular, Alberta, which is on the western frontier of Canada is the leader with an estimated 174 billion barrels of oil ( just in the Oil Sands (google for Oil Sands to learn more about it). This is such a big area of natural resources that the oil companies have been investing billions of dollars every year for the last few years in order to tap into the back gold rush. Approximately 100 billion dollars worth of investment is on the board for the next 5 years so that these companies can double and triple their production throughput to take advantage of the rising oil prices in the world and the developing geopolitics.

Long story short, the province of Alberta that has only 3 million residents, which are primarily centered in Edmonton and Calgary, is one of the fastest growing regions in North America. The situation is so bad that housing is a problem in Calgary and literally hundreds and thousands of workers have to be accomodated in mobile trailers by their companies, at times 6-8 to a trailer. There's T-cranes all over the downtown of Calgary reflecting the optimism, enthusiasm, and the sense of urgency for developing office and residential high rises, fast. Jobs are plenty and there's a shortage of labor specially in trades like carpentry, plumbing, electricals, etc. The euphoria in the area is running so high that there're myths far and wide that the street of Calgary are paved with gold. Calgary, at time seems to me a re-enactment of how San Francisco might have developed during and immediately after the gold rush of the mid 1800s.

Youth in the Labor Force
With a city that is growing leaps and bounds and where people are moving into from as far as Toronto and Texas arise the problems of supply and demand. Low birthrates and aging population is not helping either. There is so much demand for labor in this province that the government had to lower down the age limit of employment in the province of Alberta in 2005. Children, 12, 13, and 14 years old can now work in some trades, including restaurants. Youth unemployment rate is now the lowest in Canada, at 7.3%. Details of employment for persons under the age of 18 can be found at

Labor Law Violations
Adolescents in Alberta are allowed only in certain trades, during certain hours of the day and under the certain supervisory arrangements. This is to ensure that children are not exposed to hazardous conditions like heavy machinery and high heat apparatus like deep friers, etc. Special work permits are required by employers to hire adolescents. There is an extended list of codes that and regulations that on the first sight make it look like a very ingenuine way not only to solve short-term labor problems but also to build long-term capacity for the nation.

The provincial government's decision of lowering the age of employment to 12 years, although being done with good intention, is firing back. It is drawing a lot of flak lately from the local newspapers and other groups. Not a day goes by without editorials, or letters to editors, or other forms of open expression in public. It is not uncommon to over hear convesations, generally opposing the government decision to lower the age. The reason is quite obvious - while the laws are there the vigilance is missing. There's just not enough enforcement of the laws by the goverment. Employers don't apply for permits or don't follow the guidelines properly or at all sometimes. The results, as published in newspapers are horrendous. Children with frequent burns, longer than expected work hours during school time are not uncommon to hear of.

A big question now is - if this is not child labor, than what is? How is this different from young boys and girls working in shoe manufacturing companies in some Asian country? Should this be allowed to go on just because this is Canada? What would it take before proper enforcement is carried out - a death? What moral authority will the government of Canada have to police child labor in other countries? And, the biggest question of all - isn't this creating a environment where a lots of children will end up missing a chance to get proper education and ultimately end up in the workforce not fully qualified?