Quebec introduces new exception to child labour laws
Children as young as 12 can work in small agricultural businesses
Quebec Labour Minister Jean Boulet has amended his law project, Bill 19, regulating youth employment in the province to allow children under 14 to work in agriculture, provided the business has a maximum of 10 employees.
The proposed law, tabled in March, would limit the number of weekly hours Quebecers 16 and under can work during the school year to 17. It also sets the minimum legal working age at 14 — with some exceptions for jobs like babysitting or tutoring.
But Boulet's amendment would allow small agricultural businesses to be exempt from the new minimum working age and employ children as young as twelve.
The children might "do light manual labor to harvest fruits or vegetables, take care of animals, or tend the soil," according to the amendment.
The amendment was adopted Tuesday, and Québec solidaire — which had opposed any exemption — and the Quebec Liberal Party came out in favour.
This new exemption echoes the demands of employers, who asked for more exceptions to allow children under 14 to work.
The amendment had been requested by the Union of Agricultural Producers (UPA), which expressed concern that Bill 19 would deprive its members of a large workforce, especially in the summer season.
Risk of workplace injury
But there are concerns over the agricultural environment being risky as injuries in young people are frequent. Some doubt the ability of Quebec's labour regulator, La Commission des normes, de l'équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST), to ensure the safety of children in the workplace.
When the bill was introduced in March, exceptions to the minimum age were limited to activities like babysitting, day camps and working in small family businesses with fewer than ten employees, if the parents of the child who works are the owners.
"It scares us, because [the agriculture industry] is an environment that is super dangerous," said Vincent Chevarie, a spokesperson for Au bas de l'échelle, which defends non-unionized workers.
According to the National Institute of Public Health (INSPQ), agricultural machinery is regularly a cause of death and hospitalization in agricultural environments, particularly among children. About 60 per cent of child deaths in the workplace are related to machinery.
According to the Montreal Children's Hospital, machinery is a leading cause of fatal injuries in children, even if they do not handle it directly.
As for bodily injury, the most common causes are falls from a moving vehicle and entanglement in machinery. Falls from a high surface and injuries caused by animals are also commonly recorded.
CNESST limited in action
The INSPQ says that approximately 57 per cent of agricultural businesses in Quebec were not registered with the CNESST, Quebec's workplace safety board, in 2022. These businesses therefore go under the radar of the CNESST, which is not in a position to enforce regulations there.
In its brief submitted to the National Assembly, the organization Au bas de l'echelle questioned the ability of the CNESST to adequately penalize companies that violate the new rules.
This gap is a major issue, said Chevarie.
"Minister Boulet was very vague about the role and powers of the CNESST," he said.
"If we want to avoid accidents, the CNESST must be able to go to companies and workplaces to carry out increased surveillance."
Bill 19 would allow the CNESST to give bosses stiffer fines, to finance prevention activities and to analyze the risks that could affect the health and safety of employees. However, there is no mention of the checks and controls carried out to ensure ongoing security.
"Much of the responsibility for supervision is placed in the hands of employers," said Chevarie.
He believes that if Boulet extends the exceptions of Bill 19, he should give the CNESST the tools necessary to enforce the law.
"We ask that certain responsibilities and certain duties of the CNESST be added to the act respecting labour standards, so that there is no more vagueness," said Chevarie.