Family farms have a long tradition of children helping out around the farm.
But when do farm chores become something more than chores, and what limits should we place on child labour?
The answer to that depends on what we believe qualifies as normal farm work.
The regulations vary greatly across the country, but a person older than 14 is eligible to work in most eastern provinces. In Alberta and British Columbia youths can start work at 15, although farms and ranches are excluded from Alberta’s child labour laws.
Children younger than 14 can work in Sask-atchewan, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, but there are regulations that limit hours of work and prohibit work in dangerous places.
In Manitoba, 16 is deemed the age when youths can start work.
But farming is exempted from some of the rules, and in many cases it’s for good reason.
The family farm is called a family farm because the entire family pitches in and has a stake in the farm’s success or failure. Children are often expected to take over basic chores from a young age and are gradually given increasing responsibilities as they grow older, once they have shown parents that they are ready for it.
It’s a good system. Easing farm children slowly into chores from a young age with a carefully monitored approach is surely better than suddenly tossing the kids the keys to everything on the farm on the day they reach the supposed legal age of maturity.
But grey areas arise when further processing or manufacturing units are set up on the farm.
Recently, Saskatchewan Labour Minister Don Morgan allowed two children ages 8 and 10 to continue to work in the family’s on-farm poultry processing facility at Cool Springs Ranch and Butchery at Endeavour, Sask. Non-family members younger than 16 are still prohibited from working in the plant.
The Covlin family had earlier been told by Saskatchewan Occupational Health and Safety that children younger than 16, including their own children, were not allowed to work inside the facility.
The minister’s decision to consider the processing plant an extension of the family farm is the correct one in this case. The farm had a solid safety record and there were no indications that anything exploitive was going on.
The Covlins went out of their way to ensure their children were an integral part of the farming operations. They said they felt it was important to their children’s education to see and feel agriculture close up and to learn what it means to feed themselves and provide food for others.
The Covlins viewed it as part of the children’s life training and experience. Not only are they learning practical skills, such as proper safety and tool use, but they are also learning responsibility and work ethic and they are doing so under the watchful eye of parents.
Who better equipped to know what tasks a child can and cannot handle than his or her parents with whom they spend every day and night?
Child protection laws must not be lightly dismissed. Unfortunately, there will always exist an occasional person who takes advantage and abuses a situation.
But with proper regulations to ensure education and safety, limits on hours of work and careful oversight to prevent child exploitation, a proper balance can be achieved.
That was proven earlier this month at Cool Springs Ranch.
Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen and D’Arce McMillan collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.