MORE than 400,000 children aged between 10 and 15 are working illegally, many of them missing school, according to a four-year investigation.
The phenomenon which affects 12 per cent of the age group is widespread throughout Italy, not just in the less-developed south where it is more visible, according to the report published this week.
"The figures in themselves mean nothing," says Gianni Paone, a co-author of the report, "until you go and look at the individual cases."
The report, sponsored by the country's largest trade union, the CGIL federation, concludes that 368,000 Italian and 50,000 immigrant children are illegally employed. It produced the figures by extrapolating from 656 case studies and national figures on school drop-out rates, family size, family income, and undeclared employment. It also details the case studies of 542 Italians and 114 Chinese immigrants.
In the South, traditional forms of child labour include bar and restaurant work, finding parking spaces for drivers, and selling merchandise in the street.
The wealthy central and northern regions are also guilty of exploiting under-age labour. "We need to distinguish between two forms of child workers," explains Paone. "There are those who drop out of school and those who work out-of-school hours."
In the North, half of all illegal employment takes place within the family. No child under 15 can work, even in a part-time job in the family business. The only exceptio is for 14-year-olds "provided the work is not tiring and does not interfere with the child's education".
But the economic boom in the north-east has been fuelled by small and medium-sized family-run industries. Children are often expected to help out as well as attending school, meaning they must get up as early as 5am. For Paone, the situation is a symptom of the region's "anti-school" culture, where sweated labour is valued more highly than academic success.
Children of illegal immigrants are in a worse situation. The number of immigrants in Italy rose to 1.3 million by 1998, according to official figures. Although more children from developing countries are now finding their way into schools (in the region around Venice 10 per cent of pupils are from immigrant families), many remain outside the
Chinese primary-age children were found sewing clothes when police raided a Turin sweatshop earlier this year.
The hidden nature of the phenomenon partly explains the less dramatic official drop-out figures for children in the 11 to 14-year-old age-group. These showed a slight improvement over the past decade but the school leaving-age has now been raised to 15 and, from 2001, vocational or professional training until the age of 18 will be compulsory for all school-leavers.
In the long term, the plan is to fight illegal employment by creating a properly-qualified work force. In the short term, it may lead to a rise in child labour.