Case study: Ian Hart, child employment manager

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Part-time work is an important aspect of young people's learning - it teaches them valuable life skills. Unfortunately, many are exploited by their employers. Young people want money and are often willing to work as many hours as they are able to. Their education can suffer as a result.

During an investigation at a theme park we found one girl who worked a 51-hour week when she was actually on study leave for her GCSEs.

My job is to make sure that employers follow the regulations. The law isn't perfect and some aspects of it, such as the two-hour limit on a Sunday, need bringing into the 21st century. But the 12-hour weekly limit won't change - that's in place across the whole of Europe. Children need time to do homework, and they also need free time just to enjoy themselves.

Newspaper deliveries is one area that we monitor closely. They can be a particular problem in rural areas, where the school bus leaves early, so children doing paper rounds have to be up even earlier. One morning a week might not make a difference, but if someone is getting up before 6am every day, week after week, then they won't be getting the full benefit of their education. Teachers tell us about pupils who seem fine in the morning but who by the afternoon are falling asleep at their desks.

Child employment officers need the support of teachers, education welfare officers and parents who are all well-placed to notice if children are working too hard. A few years ago we investigated a branch of a fast-food chain after concern from a parent. It turned out a number of 15-year-olds were working ridiculous hours. One girl was regularly starting shifts after school and working through until midnight, or even later. Then she was travelling six miles home and getting up for school the next morning.

Another child worked 16 hours one Saturday, from 8am until midnight.

That sort of case is just the tip of the iceberg. Probably only 1 to 2 per cent of all offences actually come to light and without information from teachers or parents our chances of catching employers are slim. There have only been about 35 to 40 convictions nationally, and more than 25 of them have been here in Surrey. It's fair to say that we're more proactive than many authorities.

Even if an employer is found guilty of an offence, the maximum fine is Pounds 1,000, which isn't much of a deterrent. One large company admitted to me recently that the size of the fines, coupled with the extreme unlikelihood of getting caught, means it is sometimes worth running the risk of breaking the law.

Another problem is that employers seem to think that the permit to employ children under school-leaving age is needless red tape and so tend not to bother. But it's actually very important. If a child has an accident at work the insurers won't usually pay compensation unless the employer has a permit.

The Government is considering changing the law so that companies only register once as child employers, rather than having to apply for a permit for every child. But it's not clear why businesses should be any more compliant under that scheme than under the current one. What's really needed is more resources, so that we can monitor companies more closely.

We need to know not just where and when children are working, but also the kind of jobs they are doing. If a child is stacking shelves then that's fine, but a few years ago we found a local supermarket chain employing children behind the butcher's counter. One girl lost the end of her finger operating a meat-slicer.

This kind of situation comes about because Surrey is an area of low unemployment, and companies struggleto fill vacancies. Schoolchildren represent a hidden army of workers.

Personally, I think it's a good thing for companies to employ children, so long as it's done correctly. I know of one or two businesses whose policy is not to employ anyone under school-leaving age, rather than risk falling foul of the law. It's not the fines they worry about, but the possibility of bad publicity if they're in the local press. I find that disappointing.

It's a shame if children are denied opportunities just because companies can't be bothered to work within the law.

Ian Hart is child employment manager for Surrey County Council. He was talking to Steven Hastings

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