As the TUC reports on child workers, Maureen O'Connor finds out why protection for them is patchily enforced.
The earliest I have been out on the streets is 3am when I found nine-year-olds delivering milk in the suburb where the director and the chair of education for Solihull both live." Pattie Hill is one of the very few education welfare officers employed to enforce the law on children's employment and she takes her responsibilities seriously.
Under statute, she says, EWOs are responsible for regulating the registration of children in employment and the licensing of those in entertainment as well as school attendance. But Ms Hill finds in her role as the co-ordinator of the National Child Employment Network of EWOs that very few local education authorities have the resources to regulate the army of schoolchildren which the TUC survey has confirmed again this week are at work, many of them illegally.
There are 1.7 million children and young people under the age of 18 in the UK workforce - 6 per cent of the total, according to the GMB union, which has been campaigning on the issue for more than two years. It is estimated that one million of them are still at school.
The law on the employment of schoolchildren is quite clear, although it is complicated by thousands of local by-laws which are outdated and seldom enforced. A child under the age of 13 may not be employed at all. Between 13 and 15 there are limits on the number of hours which may be worked, and the types of work which may be undertaken. From the age of 16 there are no restrictions apart from a prohibition on work in bars or betting shops under the age of 18.
This week's TUC report, which suggests that just under 40 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds have a part-time job, is very much in line with previous surveys. A 22-school study by researchers at the University of Paisley in 1995 found that the proportion rises as children get older, with between 35 per cent and 50 per cent of 14 and 15-year-olds in work. Overall, they discovered that 80 per cent of children in some schools had worked at some time before reaching school-leaving age. Over the age of 16, headteachers and principals report that the vast majority of 16 and 17-year-olds in school and college now also work part-time.
The TUC study is part of a campaign to persuade the Government to bring British law on child employment into line with a new European Union Directive. The directive would reduce maximum working hours for the under-16s from the current 20 permissible in the UK to 12. Other campaigners would like the UK to go further and extend employment protection to 16 and 17-year-olds, as proposed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
So far the Government has postponed implementation of the working hours reduction until 2000, and has suggested amending the present regulations to allow children to work between five and eight hours on Sundays, according to age. At present the rules only permit two hours on Sundays.
It is not suggested that the maximum number of hours worked should be increased but opponents of the Government's proposal argue that this will be the effect in practice as children are sucked into the Sunday trading job market.
The Government justifies its opt-out from the EU directive on the grounds that child labour in the UK is limited and harmless. It was, they claimed, a "victory for paper-boys".
The Low Pay Unit counters that the UK and Portugal alone account for a high proportion of the young workers in the EU, and that a working age below the school-leaving age is in breach of the International Labour Organisation Convention on the minimum age for admission to employment. One third of working schoolchildren in the EU are in the UK.
The jobs that children do are inevitably low-skilled and low-paid. The Paisley University survey found newspaper and milk-delivery work accounting for 29 per cent of jobs. As children cannot legally start work before 7am, this sector accounts for Pattie Hill's early-morning patrols to combat illegal early working on the streets of Solihull.
Close behind in popularity comes babysitting, shop work and jobs in the catering industry. Cleaning jobs are also increasingly popular. In some areas the firms taking over school-cleaning contracts have pushed wages so low that they cannot attract adult workers and instead take on sixth-formers and students who may end up cleaning their own institutions.
Chris Pond of the Low Pay Unit says that the lowest wage he has come across was the 7p an hour being earned by a young door-to-door salesman. "He obviously wasn't very good at it." Such exceptions apart, he says that rates of 50p or Pounds 1 an hour are not uncommon.
He deeply regrets the loss of the Wages Councils which imposed minimum pay rates for children and young people as well as adultsin most of the low-pay industries.
The unit is also concerned about the high accident rate among young workers. A survey of Birmingham pupils found that one in three had suffered an accident at work, some of them potentially serious.
Big-name companies may provide more protection than small businesses, but their hourly rates are often little better than the local newsagent's. A survey by the GMB union found that many of the best-known retailers employ large proportions of young part-timers on very low rates of pay.
The GMB's research department survey found Superdrug with 18 per cent of its staff under 18, Tesco with 12 per cent and Ryman with 11 per cent.
Eighteen well-known retailers surveyed paid between Pounds 1.83 (Shoefayre) and Pounds 3.17 (Marks and Spencer) an hour to 16-year-olds and between Pounds 2 (Texas) and Pounds 3.36 (Ryman) to 17-year-olds.
In Pattie Hill's experience, surprisingly few parents, employers or teachers realise that there are any restrictions on child employment at all. As well as patrolling the streets, she has spent the past year visiting schools in an attempt to raise awareness about the existing laws. Leaflets for children and parents in Solihull spell out what children can and cannot legally do (see boxes below) and a newsletter goes out to employers.
"Very slowly I think we are getting on top of the problem here, but it has been horrendously difficult. I've regularly been out of bed at 5am to check on the newspaper deliveries. We now have the highest number of legally registered child workers in the country. And the employers can no longer say that they do not know what the law is. We've made sure they do know."
She is only doing, she says, what every other LEA should be doing but on the whole is not. When the GMB surveyed enforcement by LEAs it found only 15 with an EWO specifically responsible for child employment matters, and several of those were working only on a part-time or temporary basis.
They identified only 11 cases where infringement of the local employment by-laws had led to prosecution. This in spite of regular newspaper reports of serious exploitation, injuries, and even death among young people working illegally.
"The lack of resources meant that in most cases councils have to rely on parents, other members of the public or children themselves to bring potential cases of infringement to their attention," the GMB concluded.
* WHAT CURRENT UK LAW SAYS
* No child below the age of 13 may be employed.
* No child of compulsory school age may worka) during school hoursb) for more than two hours on a school day) for more than two hours on a Sunday) for more than five hours (13 and 14-year-olds) or eight hours (15-year-olds) on a Saturday) before 7am or after 7pm on any day.
* No legal limit on hours is specified but is assumed to be the total of the above, i.e. 17 hours a week for 13 and 14-year-olds and 20 hours for 15-year-olds.
* Working children must not move, lift or carry heavy objects. They are also prohibited from working in certain jobs: mining, quarrying, manufacture, construction and transport and only in street-trading if over 14 and employed by a parent. Under-18s may not work in licensed premises or betting offices.
* Working children must be registered with the local education authority. Special licensing arrangements apply to children working in entertainment.
*WHAT THE EU DIRECTIVE SAYS
Member states must ensure that national legislation meets the following requirements: * The minimum age for working must not be lower than the minimum school-leaving age, or 15 years.
* Children aged 13 to 15 may undertake "light" work (the directive defines this as "cultural, artistic or advertising work" - not shop or delivery work, for example).
* No child should be employed for more than two hours on any school day nor for more than 12 hours in any one week.
* No child should be employed before 6am or after 8pm.
* There should be provisions for compulsory rest periods.
* WHAT THE UNITED NATIONS SAYS
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child assumes that all children and young people under the age of 18 are entitled to special protection in employment. The British Government only ratified the Convention with reservations because 16 and 17-year-olds are not regarded as children under UK employment legislation.
The UN Convention requires states to * Recognise the rights of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and hazardous or harmful employment.
* Provide for a minimum age or ages for starting work.
* Provide for appropriate regulation of hours and conditionsof employment.
* Provide for appropriate penalties or sanctions to ensure the effective enforcement of the present article.