What’s a little child labour among friends?

Local businesses: “we can’t find employees!”
Chamber of Commerce: “how ’bout child labour?”
L.Bs: “Do we have to pay, like, benefits and shit?”
CoC: “Not if you only give them like 10 hours a week!”
L.Bs: “We can hire SIX part time kids who don’t even NEED benefits!?”
CoC: “It’s foolproof!”

The Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce (and/or one of its affiliates) is recommending the provincial government *lower the age for eligible employment in non-family-owned businesses/farms* to thirteen. There’s a claim that there’s a labour shortage in the province, and further, there’s a shortage of skilled labour.

  1. 13 year olds are not, this may shock you to learn, going to be taking those skilled labour jobs.
  2. Is it a labour shortage, or is it a wage shortage? How many folks are working two, three, five part-time jobs to make ends meet (answer: it’s a lot) because unskilled labourers don’t get full-time hours so employers won’t have to pay benefits. Or overtime.

The line that’s trotted out (usually by Boomers and people who think they’re hard done by because non-white folks are working in all the shite jobs white folks won’t lower themselves to do) is “people don’t want to work”. What people? What people don’t want to work?

Let’s eliminate from the list folk for whatever reason can’t work: some elders; some people with certain disability; single parents who can’t afford daycare; people who are ill; people who are legally unable to work in Canada (yet); dead people; infants and toddlers.

The fact that “infants and toddlers” has to be added to that list at all is fucking ridiculous.

Now, for argument’s sake, let’s say those folks are in the minority of the people who “don’t want to work” – just to be cheeky, let’s hazard a guess that many of those folks would LOVE to work, but they for whatever reason are legit unable to.

Who in their right mind wakes up in the morning and says “you know what I’d love? I’d love to not have anywhere to live, and I don’t really want to eat, and what I’d really like is to have to navigate the provincial and federal social safety systems which are insufficient and often byzantine”. The “these people don’t want to work” crowd would have us believe 90% of the entire workforce would do that, and we need some kind of extra incentive, other than *getting paid a liveable wage*. As much as it makes far more sense in a civlised society to ensure everyone in that society has basic shelter and the necessities of life rather than forcing people to pay half or more of their earned income for lodging and food, that’s not what the bloated corpse of unrestricted capitalism does. That’s not how it works. I mean. It doesn’t work, not really (and “trickle-down” is for old man pee dribbles, not economics).

So rather than looking at what it actually costs to live in healthy, safe environments in this province, and basing the minimum wage on full time hours on that amount, we’re recommending **hiring children** instead. I mean. It worked great for the salt mines, I guess.

black and white photograph of grubby-faced child labourers from coal mines in the early 20th century in the Americas
photograph by Lewis Hine, from https://ashley.nhcs.libguides.com/ChildLaborandIndustrialRevolution

You know who thinks child labour is a good idea? Third world countries. Know why they think it’s a good idea? Children are way easier to exploit and they’re basically a renewable resource. Is this fear-mongering? Partly. At least currently in Canada we do have *some* protections for workers, including child workers. However, given our province’s propensity for petulantly ripping human rights protection for children, I’m not particularly confident our government would, you know, follow those rules.

As a business owner the very last thing I want to have to do is literally babysit children on the job. Hiring children is something a business should only have to do in extremely rare circumstances, and even then, any manager who can’t figure out how to cover shifts with existing full time staff should maybe take a look at their business to see if the reason they can’t keep enough people on staff is because of a toxic work environment, exploitative labour practices, unreasonable working conditions, or unlivably low wages.

The number of people I personally know (yes, yes, anecdotal arguments are fallacious, but so are argumentum ad populum) who work in low-skilled, low-paying/minimum wage jobs who have been BEGGING for full time hours, only to be scheduled two hours short of it every week just because their employers don’t want to have to pay benefits or overtime is shockingly high. Perhaps not shockingly. This is how capitalism works: exploit the workers’ need for income; create a situation where employees can’t object to working conditions or wages out of fear of losing their income; profit.

Here are some ideas that might actually address the “labour shortage”:

  • offer more than minimum wage. If you can’t make a go of it in your business without paying your employees what their work is worth, you oughtn’t be in business;
  • offer full-time hours as much as you can – although it might be more expensive to pay full time wages and benefits, you’ll save money in the long run by not having as high staff turnaround. Every time you onboard a new employee, factor in about 2 weeks’ training; if you’re doing that four times a year, you’d be far better off just paying full time wages and benefits;
  • make your workplace a safe and tolerable (if not enjoyable) place to work;
  • SUPPORT YOUR EMPLOYEES. Contrary to somewhat popular belief, the customer is not always right. In fact, the customer is *rarely* right. And if the customer treats your staff like rubbish, the customer is definitely wrong. Develop strong workplace wellness policies and back up your employees;
  • train people properly and tell your employees what your expectations are. Be clear about policy violations and their consequences. Employ a progressive discipline scale and stick to it;
  • offer a cost of living increase every year if the consumer price index increases;
  • get rid of merit-based bonuses and pay rises. Instead, create a good workplace environment, hire the right people, and insist on professionalism. Yes, this can be done in the service industry. Yes, even in fast food restaurants; instead, encourage employee “buy-in” – if your employees have a stake in your business doing well because it means everyone gets a higher-than-cost-of-living increase, all the better (no, this is not a merit-based increase – you’re offering it to the entire staff if the business does well, and to nobody, INCLUDING OWNERS AND MANAGERS if it doesn’t). Consider a salary scale that provides incremental pay rises based on length of time with the company;
  • be a goddamned human. Offer personal/wellness days and don’t require doctors’ notes (which cost up to $100 to get). If your business can accommodate hybrid/remote work, make that an option (especially for people with children or who are caring for elders or other dependents). Help your staff work together to schedule vacations, days off, etc. (your well-drafted HR policies will outline how many wellness days each employee gets, based on the hours they work or the length of time they’ve been with the company);

When I think of the best jobs I’ve had, the ones where I’ve had a degree of autonomy and the freedom to make a difference or to make a job my own, no matter how small that opportunity was, were the best jobs I had. I didn’t even hate working in fast food (in fact, I had a blast, in part because I had awesome managers who made a point of getting to know the staff and did their best to support us). The work itself may not have been engaging, but my coworkers were, and the people I served were.

black and white image of a child dragging/laying cable through a dusty street
Photo by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz : https://www.pexels.com/photo/child-weaving-in-a-workshop-19405132/

As an employer, I can tell you in the last 25 years, the only people I’ve ever seen who don’t want to work are shitty business owners and shitty managers. So yeah. The solution to whatever perceived “labour shortage” we’re experiencing isn’t to hire children. Let them be responsibility- and worry-free for as long as they can, because adulting lasts a very, very, VERY long time. I think about folks like my grandmother, who started working when she was 12 years old because they were living through the Great Depression and if she (and her siblings) didn’t take in laundry, run errands, pick up work as farm hands, etc., there wouldn’t have been anything to eat. She had to leave school after eighth grade to go to work full time. She retired when she turned 65, having put in MORE THAN FIFTY YEARS OF LABOUR. My granddad made it to sixth grade. How much more might they have accomplished if they’d have been able to complete

their schooling, maybe even do some post-secondary?

Anyway. This is a fucking stupid idea. The Chambers of Commerce in this province wield an ungodly amount of power, and they have the opportunity to make a real difference, to actually be innovative and to stimulate economic growth by recommending best practices, by promoting the work of thought leaders and small businesses who do well not because they take advantage of their employees but because they employ good business practices and their staff has agency and are an integral and valued part of operations. Instead the Chambers of Commerce have decided they’ll trot out the same old tired ideas that their GREAT GRANDPARENTS had.


One response to “What’s a little child labour among friends?”

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Avatar

    They have to find a way to stop the practice of having several part time employees so the business doesn’t have to pay a full-time one and give them benefits. It is sucking the life out of workers who have to do transportation to several jobs and spend more total time because their bosses do this.

    Interview all the workers leaving a workplace and find out how much of this goes one, and fine the heck out of the ’employer.’

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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