ALMOST a quarter of children spend seven hours or more a week working, often in "slave labour" conditions, a new report says.
At least 1.4 million UK children do some kind of work. Twenty per cent of 11-year-olds and 30 per cent of 12-year-olds work in their spare time, despite 13 being the legal minimum age. Many are paid less than Pounds 1.25 an hour - in some cases as little as 50p.
The joint report from Save the Children and the Child Poverty Action Group claims work can be good for schoolchildren, so long as they receive adequate protection.
Bridget Pettitt, the report's editor, said: "Working can be beneficial to children: they want to work and can make a positive contribution to both the economy and their families. It's crucial the Government properly examines the reality of children's work in the 1990s, and introduces proper regulation.
"Under current rules, children are allowed to deliver papers in the dark at 7am, but can't stack shelves in a supermarket for more than two hours on a Sunday afternoon. That doesn't make sense."
Terry MacDermott at CPAG claims few people realise the extent to which children are exploited by unscrupulous employers. "The many children working long hours in basically slave-type conditions have little protection from anarchic regulation and inadequate legislation, with virtually no health and safety provision," she said.
Ms MacDermott continued: "There is a massive socio-economic divide. The children working the longest hours for the lowest pay tend to come from families on income support or one-parent families. Often they are working to give money back to the family. It's a vicious circle, because these are the children most likely not to turn up at school or to face exclusion for lateness and truancy."
Boys are more likely to earn higher rates of Pounds 2.50 an hour or more. The average is Pounds 2.42 an hour, compared to Pounds 1.98 for girls. Children of single parents fare worst, earning an average of 65p an hour less than children from two-parent families.
The report, which will go to the Department of Health on Tuesday, suggests that schools take a more active interest in children's out-of-hours jobs.
Bridget Pettitt said: "Schools send pupils on work experience as part of the curriculum, but have this wholly negative attitude to other work. Work can be very educational."
* "Children and Work in the UK" is available priced Pounds 9.95 plus post and packing, from Save the Children on 0171 703 5400 or CPAG on 0171 253 3406.