Josephine Gardiner joins a dawn raid by child employment officers in a south London borough. There were six unwelcome visitors waiting for Kirit Patel in the chill of a deserted south London street just before dawn last Friday when he opened his newsagents' shop: a television cameraman, two reporters, a child employment officer, a social worker and a court officer.
Back in July 1992, Mr Patel had been warned by Karen Reardon, child employment officer for the London borough of Greenwich, that he was breaking the law by employing school-age children before 7am. Ms Reardon explained that she had recently been contacted anonymously by a parent who, while unaware of the legal situation, was worried because her child was being put under pressure to turn up for work at 6.15. This had prompted the follow-up visit to find out whether Mr Patel was indeed still breaking the law, and if so, to tell him formally that court action would follow if the situation continued.
It was Mr Patel's misfortune that this fairly routine rap on the knuckles neatly coincided with the publication by Greenwich Council of a wide-ranging investigation into the extent of child labour in the borough - hence the media interest.
The survey, which was Karen Reardon's idea, covered 1,600 pupils between 10 and school-leaving age in 15 secondary schools, plus one primary, one independent and one school for children with special needs.
It revealed that 41 per cent had jobs and that 78 per cent of these were illegal. Twenty seven per cent had two jobs, 19 per cent three. Over half earned Pounds 10 a week or less, and over a third had had an accident while working. As well as the traditional paper rounds and babysitting, the report uncovered some bizarre and risky occupations including walking dogs classified as dangerous under the Dangerous Dogs Act, working on a barge on the Thames (these were both girls aged between 13 and 15 respectively) working in fairgrounds and circuses (often cleaning up in return for "free" entertainment) and a 15-year-old boy who worked as a gamekeeper in Kent every Saturday and Sunday, patrolling around unsupervised, armed with a shotgun and setting traps.
Mr Patel hardly fits the Victorian ogre stereotype of the exploitative employer of children, and managed to keep his cool under the media spotlight, protesting only that the demands of customers were incompatible with the law.
"The customers want their papers before work, the kids want to get to school on time and the law says they can't come before seven. How can we comply to three orders? We don't force them to come before seven. Whoever reported us was lying."
But Karen Reardon was unmoved: "Exploitation can be done in the nicest possible way." While paper rounds are a traditional way for teenagers to earn pocket money and are seen as the acceptable face of child labour, she pointed out that very real dangers lie in wait for children walking around empty streets before 7 am. "By seven there are more people about on their way to work, but at 6.15 the streets are deserted. A 13-year-old girl walking about at this hour on her own with a heavy bag is a target for muggers or worse, especially in the winter months when it's pitch dark."
She recalls one recent case in which a paper boy was mugged and robbed of his bike.
The other point, she says, is that to be at the shop just after six,"these teenagers have to get up at around 5.30, do the paper round, then a full day at school, with homework in the evening ... school work comes under pressure. "
Joanne Rawlins, aged 16, told me she had been doing a paper round for four years. She works every morning, including the weekend, for which she is paid Pounds 9, which works out at well under Pounds 1 an hour. Joanne also works at the Post Office between 9 and 2 on Saturdays.
On top of this she is taking nine GCSEs in a few weeks' time. Asked whether she knew it was illegal to employ her before 7 am she said no, "but Mum thinks it's a bit out of order having to come in so early." Stuart Worley, aged 14, said that the 12 paper boys and girls working for Mr Patel had 50p deducted from their wages if they were late.
The law governing the employment of children is based on the Children and Young Person's Act passed back in 1933 (last amended in 1963). This forbids the employment of any child under 13 and limits the hours children over 13 and under 16 can work to two hours a day between 7 and 8am (for paper and milk rounds only) or 5 and 7 in the evening. Children may also work for four hours on Saturday, or eight hours if they are over 15. The working week may not exceed 20 hours for under-15s or 30 for 16-year-olds still at school. Britain has opted out of an EC directive which would restrict this further.
Local authorities have the power to modify these basic requirements under byelaws. The problem with this, says Karen Reardon, is that these vary widely across the country and are often anachronistic. For instance, some urban boroughs still make exemptions for bringing in the harvest, and many stipulate that children should not be employed as "lather boys" in barber shops.
On the other hand, many modern and often highly risky occupations, such as cleaning windscreens at crossroads, are not regulated at all, particularly where the child is effectively self-employed.
Babysitting, which is considered a traditional and innocuous job for teenagers, worries Karen Reardon: "I think there should be very strict regulations governing babysitting. The responsibility that young babysitters take on makes my blood run cold."
The Department of Health is currently preparing a consultation document which will propose a set of model byelaws, incorporating the EC directive, which could be adopted nationally. It should be finished "in a couple of months" said a DoH spokeswoman. The report of the Greenwich survey calls for the 1973 Employment of Children Act, which has been gathering cobwebs in the statute book for 22 years, to be implemented. It provided national regulations and eliminated the discrepancies between local authority byelaws.
Karen Reardon said that Greenwich preferred to take "an informative rather than punitive" approach to employers, many of whom have as hazy a knowledge of the law as their young employees. While Karen Reardon and her fellow officers might visit "three or four newsagents a day", informing them about the law or warning them of the intention to go to court, actual prosecutions are rare. The thought of bad publicity, combined with some information about their insurance liability should one of their illegally employed children get hurt, is often the most effective way to get employers to mend their ways, she says.
"We are not saying that children should not work, just that they must be protected. It is exciting doing your first job, but it's a shame to get bogged down with too much too young. There is no minimum wage for children, or holiday or sick pay; they are cheap to employ and easy to dispose of."