Where children come cheap

Our wrap-'em-in-cotton-wool approach to the young stops at the workplace. Millions of under-16s have

Child protection is more fashionable in some places than others. It wasn't much in evidence at the butcher's shop where 14-year-old Sam Crosby lost all the fingers of his right hand while making sausages. Or on the stall in a Hull pub car park where Peter Parish, also aged 14, tried to refuel a still- running, petrol-fuelled generator.

Sam was working as a Saturday lad in a shop in Littleworth, Staffordshire. His employer was fined £8,000 in October for various health and safety offences. They included removing the restrictor plate to the mincing machine, which isn't a brilliant piece of child protection, whichever way you look at it. Nor was the district judge in Hull minded to use the law to protect others. When Peter's employer admitted leaving him unsupervised and untrained to work a doughnut stall, he received a conditional discharge. Peter underwent six weeks of skin grafts.

There is something curious about this relaxed attitude to damaging children at work. It jars with what we expect of our highly regulated, wrap-'em-in-cotton-wool approach to children. It also conflicts with general expectations of our workplaces, where, by popular reputation, no one can move without tripping over a health and safety regulation.

Local education authorities have a legal responsibility to register and monitor child employment, issuing permits to anyone wanting to employ 13- to 16-year-olds of compulsory school-going age. But their approach is seriously laid back. Most authorities ask employers to carry out a risk assessment prior to issuing a permit. Do they then ask to see the assessment? Not generally, according to the Health and Safety Executive. It finds that authorities "very rarely check that a risk assessment is being adhered to".

In a survey, 66 per cent said they "have never followed up a risk assessment"; 31 per cent said they would follow up if an issue arose. The permit system itself is widely ignored, yet few local authorities have child employment officers actively investigating breaches. Some authorities have a policy of not prosecuting.

The government has recognised the problem. It set up a working group on child employment at the Better Regulation Task Force in October, to report this month. The leader of the study group, Simon Petch, accepts that, "there are too many examples where the law has not achieved its aims and children have been found to be working excessive hours, or in prohibited premises such as commercial kitchens".

Not all child work is exploitative. Few people think that work is essentially a bad thing for children. Young people, employers and parents generally welcome it. It promotes independence, self-esteem and skill acquisition. It keeps potentially idle hands busy. The question is whether children's work is properly regulated - at present, it is in practice less regulated than adult work.

Work is a normal adolescent experience. Most children have had at least one job by the time they leave school. There are no official figures, says Jim McKechnie of Paisley University, who has studied the subject extensively. But snapshots give a consistent picture of there being between 1.1 million and 1.7 million under-16s in some kind of paid employment. "If you ask how many have ever worked by the time they reach 16, then the extrapolated figure goes to between 2.2 and 2.6 million."

Teachers say work often affects children's school performance. "There is research evidence of a connection between excessive working and poorer commitment to school," says McKechnie. Excessive working is defined as ten hours or more. What is not clear is whether disaffected children opt out from school and get part-time jobs or whether the commitment to a part-time job drags down school work. Probably a bit of both.

Children's work is no longer confined to babysitting and newspaper delivery. Many under-16s are quietly getting on with what anyone would recognise as proper adult jobs. Margaret Berry, senior environmental health officer with Calderdale Council, surveyed pupils at two local schools. She found that 44 per cent were working. Most were employed in catering, preparing and serving food, and serving in shops. Nearly a quarter of boys in one school were doing labouring, fencing or joinery work.

A similar picture emerges around the country. Workers for Connexions, the youth advisory service, report kids doing almost anything. They work in hotels, cafes and bars. They work in family businesses, on farms and for scrap metal firms, on markets, in supermarkets and doing all kinds of shop work. Seventy-five per cent of them work illegally; roughly 10 per cent say they have truanted in order to work.

Pay rates for children can range from £1 or £2 an hour to close to the minimum wage (which naturally excludes them, as it does 16- and 17-year-olds). Some children are undoubtedly working to ease the pressure on family budgets. But there is no simplistic relationship between school-age workers and poverty. McKechnie says when he first started going into schools, "we were told that all we would be studying was social class". The stereotype was that children from poorer families were likely to work. But some studies suggest the opposite. "Children from areas of extreme poverty have fewer job opportunities and no local labour market networks to tap into."

Prosperous Surrey is indeed where most of the infringements of child labour laws have been prosecuted. Here, there is a high demand for low-paid casual workers; and the county council has hired the country's most prolific prosecutor of illegal child employers, the former police officer Ian Hart. His most recent prosecution, in October, was of Sainsbury's for breaches of permit requirements and permitted hours legislation at one of its branches in Leatherhead. Hart, whose personal tally of prosecutions exceeds 20, has gained court victories over big names including McDonald's, Tesco, Forbuoys newsagents and Woolworths. He remains shocked at the cavalier attitude of major employers. Of one supermarket, he says: "I could not believe that, despite all our efforts in attempting to work with the company and following up with written warnings, they had the audacity to carry on blatantly ignoring the law."

There are three main strands to the legal controls. Some occupations and industries are deemed too dangerous altogether and children are banned from employment in such areas as factory work, selling petrol and working in slaughterhouses. Equally, age-related maximum hours are set for weekdays and weekends, so that children do not work too many hours, or too early or too late during the school term. Finally, there is the permit system.

"The vast majority [of children] don't work in factories and don't work in extreme types of employment," says McKechnie. "But because they are doing delivery work or shop work doesn't mean that they are not at risk." In fact, studies show that most accidents to children occur while they are making deliveries. Fourteen-year-old Ryan Pettigrew was killed while delivering newspapers in June 2001. His round included a road with a 60mph speed limit which in parts had no pavements, and he had neither helmet nor reflective clothing.

Children are allowed to do light work. But what an adult regards as light work may not be experienced as such by a 13-year-old. Consider that the 13-year-old is already committed to 28 hours per week at school, has homework and has perhaps walked or run to get to the workplace. A good and willing worker, especially one as cheap as a schoolchild, will be offered more work, especially at busy times.

The European Working Time Directive holds no sway when it comes to children in the workplace: in the run-up to Christmas, for instance, Sam Crosby, who was injured at the butcher's shop, had been working extremely long hours. His fatigue no doubt contributed to his injury. The Health and Safety Executive knows of 31 reportable accidents involving under-16s at work over the past two years, including 16 major injuries and one fatality. But accidents will be under-reported, especially those to children employed in illegal industries.

At the very least, children at work should have the same level of protection that adults have. To achieve this, the govern- ment's new task force group, which aims simply to improve the implementation of existing child labour legislation, is not enough. What is needed, instead, is a complete overhaul of a law that allows children to be treated as a casual, part-time and dispensable workforce.

This article appears in the 12 January 2004 issue of the New Statesman, American terrorist