Why labour groups support lowering the voting age

By Theresa Mah, Vote 16 BC campaigner

Already vulnerable workers deserve a voice, and a vote

Workers under the age of 18 balance a lot — family time and responsibilities, academics, extracurriculars — on top of one or more jobs that may or may not cover their expenses. One in five British Columbians under 17 years old live in poverty. Like everyone else, teens need jobs to survive.

Youth face challenges to accessing fair work. Often marginalized and vulnerable, young workers may find it difficult — even impossible — to protect themselves from hostile environments that include injury risks, harassment or overwork. At risk of exploitation, these employees are protected by workplace laws, yet the legislation is neither created nor chosen by youth, so does not adequately meet their needs.

This is a recurring theme in British Columbia. Young people are constantly underrepresented in the Legislature. With almost 70,000 workers disenfranchised from our democracy, workforce laws were not created with the needs of young workers in mind.

At no time is this more evident than right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has left vulnerable workers without opportunities. The jobs young workers usually perform — food service, retail, care work — are much fewer, making them extremely competitive. And this is not going away. Emerging research is showing the impending pandemic-driven recession will affect education, job security and affordability for decades to come. Today’s teenagers are facing unprecedented economic insecurity that will impact them their whole lives.

The party that wins this election will determine the course of action. The problem is that young people don’t have a say in which party that will be.

There is no doubt young workers are essential to our society – workers under 18 can add diversity and bring new skills and perspectives to a team of adult employees. Jobs give young people opportunities to learn and practice skills they can build from for the rest of their professional lives, and are one of the first chances youth get to contribute to society.

However, even though young workers make up a large percentage of the workforce, they ultimately have little say in how their roles are defined. As much as adults who can vote try to do their best for working youth, they simply lack the perspective a young person has living in the world today. What was true for one generation often changes in the next. As a result, policy does not meet the needs of young workers.

The BC NDP has pledged a “new deal for young people” in their current platform. They claim they’ll address the needs of young workers through “good work and fair treatment” – higher minimum wages, ensuring workers are compensated fairly and ending unpaid internships.

These assurances do not even begin to cover the issues facing young people especially exploitation, whether by employers or even customers. Teenagers do not always have the resources to fight harassment and are not always in safe positions to do so, particularly when jobs are scarce and employers have a line of others waiting to be hired.

Workplace laws must be stricter, and must have the input of youth, to truly equalize the treatment of all workers. There will not be fair treatment for young people if they continue to be shut out of the foundation of a solid democracy.

Our ideas can no longer be simply entertained for political show. We must be taken seriously, as youth are no different from any other constituent. We are ready to not only watch change be made, but to be a part of making it. Keeping Canadian citizens out of the democratic process based solely on age, but claiming to provide a ‘new deal for young people’, is immensely hypocritical.

We must fight for the representation of young workers. The microphone must be passed to those who matter and their voices must be listened to. Votes for young workers would not only be an enormous leap towards a more just workplace, but a more fair and democratic society.

Organizations that support workers’ rights understand this. Recently, six labour councils including the Kamloops & District Labour Council, the Vancouver & District Labour Council and the New Westminster Labour Council, joined Vote 16 BC’s fight to include young people in elections. They recognize the opportunities that come forward when youth are allowed to fully participate in democracy. They know lowering the voting age will produce better representation and stronger policy for all workers.

The BC NDP has traditionally been the party of workers. They need to reflect on which workers they listen to if they want to build B.C.’s path forward, especially if we are facing an unprecedented economic depression. Today’s youth will be disproportionately affected by the decisions the next government makes for decades to come. It’s only fair we get a say in who that government is.

Stand up for young workers. Take action at www.VotesForWorkers.ca

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