Blighted youth

Despite reformers' efforts children still work in bad conditions for poor pay

Just like the chimney sweeps and factory workers of 19th-century Britain, Jose Marquez Mondragon missed his childhood, writes Linda Blackburne. The young Jose's parents sent him from Mexico City to live with his grandmother in the country. They promised to take him back when they could afford to look after him again. But they didn't get back in touch, and when Jose's grandmother started to mistreat him, he ran away.

Jose eventually found his parents in Mexico City but they rejected him - a situation not uncommon among poor Mexican families - and he was forced to work on the streets. He told ChristianAid: "I cleaned the streets to get some money so that I could buy the essential things I needed to survive. I picked rags in the street to get some food.

"As I grew up it became more difficult to earn money. When I was 12, I worked in a shopping centre, sweeping the whole store. Later I worked with a carpenter. That was a very tough job. I had to work 10 hours a day to earn very little money."

Jose, now about 20, is studying computers at high school and is living in a home run by Casa Alianza, a project that aims to take children off the streets and give them an education and a future. He calls his new life a "rebirth", and hopes to become a teacher and work with young people himself.

But child labour isn't an issue only in the Third World. Headteachers in the UK have long been worried about the number of hours some of their pupils work. Their concerns were highlighted by a widely publicised court case last September in which Avon Cosmetics and recruitment agency Kelly Services Ltd of Kingston-Upon-Thames pleaded guilty to illegally employing secondary schoolchildren in the make-up firm's Northampton factory, in contravention of the Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act 1920. The prosecution was brought by the Health and Safety Executive, and Northampton magistrates fined the firms Pounds 3,750 each.

Such cases are not uncommon. Between 1996 and 1997, the HSE successfully prosecuted 26 companies for illegally employing children. Further evidence of how big the problem is came in a study by employment rights organisation the Low Pay Unit (Invisible Hands: Child Employment in North Tyneside, published in March by the LPU Pounds 20), which surveyed more than 1,000 working children. On the basis of their findings, the report's authors, Catherine O'Donnell and LeroyWhite, reckon that in the North Tyneside region alone some 2,000 children are being employed in a way that breaks the law.

New regulations on child employment in the UK came into force on August 4 this year. These amend the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 and bring existing guidance on child employment into national legislation. They also raise the minimum legal working age for a child from 13 to 14 (although 13-year-olds can work if local authority by-laws authorise them in some light jobs).

Children under 15 are still allowed to work 17 hours a week because the old Conservative government opted out of the 12-hour provision in the 1994 European Union directive on young workers. However, the Low Pay Unit, Christian Aid and the National Union of Teachers are still campaigning for a reduction from 17 to 12 hours. They want child employment regulations to be incorporated into home-school contracts.

A Department of Health report reviewing child employment law is due to be published at the end of the year.

Low Pay Unit: 0171 713 7616

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