Do we really want to make it illegal for kids to work?

6th August 1999 at 01:00
AN ESTIMATED two in three children in Scotland have a job before they turn 16. At a supermarket near you teenagers are trying to combine shelf-stacking with studying. But the future for holiday and part-time jobs is far from clear.

This is the first full summer break since the Children and Young Persons (Protection at Work) regulations came into force last August. Made in response to European Union requirements, they amended the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act of 1937. Under-14s are not permitted to work, and those over 14 cannot be employed for anything other than light duties.

That is defined as work which is not harmful to a child's safety, health or development, school attendance or capacity to benefit from education. The new requirement is far more restrictive than the 1937 Act which concerned itself with simple matters such as preventing children from carrying heavy loads.

Controlling hours of work, however, featured both in that Act and the 1998 regulations. No one under the minimum leaving age is permitted to work before close of school, for more than two hours on a school day or Sunday, before 7am or later than 7pm.

National limits for Saturdays and holidays mean that 14-year-olds are restricted to five hours a day and no more than 25 hours a week during school holidays. For those over 15 the maximum is eight hours a day and 35 hours a week. All children must have two weeks free from work and school.

Education authorities also have the power to make local bylaws. This prompted the Government last year to circulate model bylaws to councils as part of its review of child employment. Its plans - which apparently include reducing permitted term-time hours from 17 to 12 a week - should be made public shortly.

In the meantime councils are using the model bylaws to replace existing rules - controversially so, in some cases, since they prohibit under-16s from delivering milk. Work in a commercial kitchen is also ruled out. That would seem to pull the plug on those dishwashing jobs which traditionally boosted pocket money and the sales of record companies.

Skills and confidence are some of the "benefits" of jobs for young people as highlighted by studies at Paisley University. The difficulty lies in balancing these against the "costs", ranging from health risks to poor academic achievement.

Jim McKechnie, Paisley's senior lecturer in psychology, says: "When you look at the number of children who have work permits, you are lucky to find one in 10. Authorities argue that they need resources to police the system."

Dr McKechnie believes the monitoring process could be valuable if linked to children's employment rights or to health and safety issues, but he warns: "It would mean recognising children in the same way as adult employees."

John Downie, spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses, stresses the complexity of existing regulations. "Any business which wants to employ kids has to deal with the local authority, parents and schools."

The federation accepts there are issues to be addressed but Mr Downie warns:

"Some employers may feel it's not worth the hassle."

Brendan Burns, the federation's chairman, personally thinks that children would be ill-served. Now in the forestry business, Mr Burns ran a hotel for 30 years employing many young people. "Some children are working for pocket money, but there are a second group who are considering the future, who may want to go all the way through school to university. At 15 or 16, they are starting to build up reserves."

The gains, Mr Burns said, are more than financial. He cites a former young employee now high up in the oil industry. "He got his first job because of working in the hotel trade as a youngster. Actually he started washing dishes, but learnt about wine through watching how it was served.

"So when a prospective boss presented him with a wine list, expecting him, at only 19, to be out of his depth, he was completely confident. And he got the job."

Self-assurance and a financial boost are pluses from the Government's point of view as ministers emphasise enterprise, and yet seek to protect young people against exploitation. Americans, for whom working their way through college is a tradition, have a proverb: "There's a powerful pile of knowledge you never get at college, there are heaps of things you never learn at school."

All walks of life, page 11

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