There’s no legislation to protect children working in the territory, says the Yukon Federation of Labour.
“It is a national embarrassment that it would be legally possible for an employer to hire children of any age,” said federation president Alex Furlong on Wednesday.
“I have been in business establishments in the City of Whitehorse and have been absolutely astounded by the age of the kids who serve me,” he said.
For Furlong, the issue of child labour is a personal one.
“My daughter, who is 12, has been bugging me to get a job because she’s seen her friends getting jobs,” he said.
“You know, the money is good but I want my child to be able to come home at night — I have no faith in the safety of our workplaces in this territory.”
As many as 1,960 accidents were reported last year — that’s nearly 13 per cent of the territory’s work force.
And while the number of accidents has remained relatively constant, the Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board reported that injuries among young workers have risen 20 per cent.
The federation is urging the government to move immediately to prepare amendments to the Yukon Employment Standards Act.
“Is there a minimum age? No,” said director of government employment standards, Bill Wilcox.
“The employment standards act establishes the minimum labour legislation for the territory, and just because you’re 12 doesn’t mean you’re treated any differently than if you’re 60.”
However, the act states persons employed who are under 17 could be regulated, if it’s deemed necessary.
That provision has not yet been used, said Wilcox.
The mining industry is the only field that’s regulated.
Every year, Wilcox receives calls from parents asking about age restrictions in the territory.
“Parents are heavily involved,” he said.
“The parents need to decide if they want their children to stock shelves.”
Every other jurisdiction, except Nunavut, has legislation regulating the employment of children.
In British Columbia, it’s illegal to employ anyone under the age of 15 without the written consent of a parent or guardian.
Employers must also demonstrate that the child will not work in an inherently dangerous environment.
Furlong is not blaming the current Yukon government, he said.
“We are fully aware that all political parties in the Yukon have held government in the past 10 to 15 years.
“And all have had an opportunity to address the issue.
“For the sake of kids in this territory, we need to do something,” he said.
“And we’re not talking six months, 12 months, 18 months — we want it done, and we want it done now.”
“Obviously, anyone that’s in the workplace falls under labour protection,” said Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce president Rick Karp.
“Having said that, I agree that there are very young people working in the territory. This is a problem and it’s a problem we have to address.
“But let’s not just criticize, let’s have some solutions to this,” he said.
A minimum age for child workers is the first step, said Furlong.
“Then we need to look at each industry — do they need the parent’s consent, do they need a minister’s consent?”
However, the Yukon’s unique economy has to be taken into account if new regulations are created, said Karp.
“Often it’s a family business with the kids helping out,” he said.
“What are we going to do if the business is at home — bar the child from certain parts of the house?
“We have to look at these types of things.”
Karp dismissed comments from the labour board that the chamber would be against tighter regulations because of the labour shortage.
“We have made suggestions to government that we have to look at legislation for social-assistance clients to get them back to work,” said Karp.
“We also need to give summer workers that go on employment insurance incentives to continue working.”
These types of initiatives could solve the labour problem and then the territory wouldn’t have to worry about businesses hiring youth, he said.
Every year on April 28th, Canada’s National Day of Mourning, Furlong reads out the names of Yukoners that have been killed on the job.
“It’s only a matter of time before I’ll be forced to read the name of a child in this territory,” said Furlong.
“This has to be on the radar screen — we have to deal with this now, before it’s too late.”