Quebec’s proposed new child labour law is a good start but the issues are complex

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In 5 seconds

Two UdeM professors recommend approaches to regulating youth employment, based on their field research and expertise.

The restrictions in Quebec’s proposed Bill 19, An Act respecting the regulation of work by children, are an excellent first step toward better regulating youth employment. But many parts of the law are vague and data from Quebec studies could help policy-makers legislate on this issue more effectively.

This is the key message from Université de Montréal professors Véronique Dupéré of the Department of Psychoeducation and Nancy Beauregard of the School of Industrial Relations.

Co-holders of the McConnell-University of Montreal Research Chair in Youth Knowledge Mobilization, Dupéré and Beauregard recently submitted a brief on Bill 19 to the to National Assembly Committee on Labour and the Economy.

The brief reports their research findings on the transition to adulthood and issues around youth health and safety at work. It also gives young people a voice, thanks to input from Montreal’s public health department, the Quebec federation of CEGEP students, the youth advocacy group Force Jeunesse, and the Montreal Hooked on School coalition.

“We felt there was a lack of young people and research groups at the table during the consultations on Bill 19,” said Beauregard. “And we were doing research directly with working youth and producing studies that could help guide policy-makers.”

“It’s rare that the issue of child labour receives public attention, even though it is by no means a new phenomenon and is not about to disappear,” said Dupéré, who is also Canada Research Chair on the Transition to Adulthood. “We believe Bill 19 is a real opportunity to tackle, upstream, the social and health inequalities that young people face in the labour market, and so we welcomed the opportunity to contribute our perspective.”

Here is an overview of their main insights and concerns.

The diverse realities of working youth

Véronique Dupéré

Véronique Dupéré, professor at the School of Psychoeducation of the Université de Montréal

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As it currently stands, Bill 19 prohibits the employment of children under the age of 14 except for certain jobs and limits the number of hours older school-age children can work to 17 hours per week during the school year.

Dupéré and Beauregard support these new provisions. They note that work-related physical injuries are higher among young workers and they have higher rates of psychological distress and problems at school when they work long hours and experience high levels of work stress (e.g. time pressure, work overload, conflicts between work schedules and other areas of life, including school).

But the researchers are quick to point out that limiting the number of hours that young people can work per week will not completely solve the problem of youth overinvesting in work. They urge policy-makers to pay special attention to vulnerable youths, who may be forced to work in order to meet their basic needs.

“By limiting the number of hours these youths can work, we are forcing them into the black market where they lack all basic protections,” explained Dupéré. “So we will need to monitor the situation closely and devise other supports to prevent this from happening.”

It’s also important to realize that while some young people work to meet their basic needs, there are youths with academic or psychosocial vulnerabilities who work to learn and be involved, which they may have trouble doing at school.

A recent study by Éliane Thouin, then a Ph.D. student under Dupéré, found that work can be beneficial for young people given the right conditions in terms of number of hours worked and quality of work. Such work can “support identity development, lead to more rapid integration into employment that matches their aspirations, and provide a protective space with a caring mentor,” said Thouin, who now works for Montreal Hooked on School.

Working youths have specific needs

Nancy Beauregard

Nancy Beauregard, Professor at the School of Industrial Relations of the Université de Montréal

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Because they are different from adults developmentally, physically and psychologically, young people have unique and specific needs as workers. This is something that all stakeholders in the world of work need to be educated about, note Dupéré and Beauregard.

They make two key points. First, employers must understand that workers 16 years and under constitute an at-risk population and have special needs in terms of guidance and supervision.

“It’s imperative that we don’t extrapolate the findings of studies on adult workers to youth,” said Dupéré. “For example, while autonomy in the workplace is generally considered very positive for adults, it can very quickly become anxiety-provoking for youths. In general, young people benefit from closer supervision.”

Second, youths need to be better informed about their rights in the workplace, including those pertaining to labour standards, occupational health and safety, and compensation in the event of a work-related injury.

Dupéré and Beauregard advocate integrating these topics into the core school curriculum in the first grades of high school so that students are familiar with them when they turn 14 and can start working.

“If they fully understand their rights and what to do if those rights are violated, young people can protect themselves,” said Beauregard. “This is a population-level intervention that could be very effective in prevention.”

In short, Dupéré and Beauregard’s brief to the consultation on Quebec’s proposed new law on child labour highlights the complexity of the issues involved and the important role of interdisciplinary scientific research in formulating public policies.

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