Child labour evokes images that are pure melodrama: bedraggled urchins forced up filthy chimneys, tiny machinists bent over workbenches in Dickensian factories, young weavers losing their sight making Oriental carpets for our pleasure, whole continents of children losing their youth in the day-to-day grind of ploughing, reaping, sowing and winnowing, carrying heavy loads, looking after the young and the sick.
The West prides itself on the reforms introduced this century that have eradicated the exploitation of children in employment. Hand in hand with this, since Victorian times society has constructed a concept of childhood that separates the child from the work and cares of everyday adult life. Children may be seen and they may be heard - but only playing, exploring, enjoying their freedom from responsibilities, protected from the harsher realities of life.
While other less developed societies may not protect children from unpleasantness including the exploitative excesses of employers out for cheap labour we do. Or so the thinking goes.
Last month, speakers at a conference on "Children and Young People at Work", organised by the Low Pay Unit, showed just how wrong-headed some of these assumptions are. The conference also underlined how widespread child labour is across the social classes in Britain, its varied nature and the complexity of issues surrounding it.
Studies over the past 10 years have consistently shown that many schoolchildren have part-time jobs outside their homes. Dr Michael Lavalette, senior lecturer in social policy at the University of Central Lancashire and co-author of a number of studies on child labour, concurs with other researchers when he states that one young person in three will be working in their last year of compulsory education and two out of three will have worked at some time by the time they finish school.
Contrary to public myth, most are not driven into the workforce because of poverty. While there are children like the 14-year-old in Birmingham who, as the sole breadwinner for his family, worked on a milk float from 4.30am before going off to school, he is in a minority. The truth is that the poorest children often live in areas most ravaged by the recession where there is no opportunity for employment, possibly because hard-up adults are taking the poorly-paid jobs that were once the province of children.
Virginia Morrow's 1990-91 study of 730 children in rural Huntingdonshire and inner city Birmingham found a greater number working in affluent areas. This bears out the argument that children work where there are jobs to be had to pay for all the non-essential "must-havables". The money that children and young people earn from their part-time jobs is not, by and large, handed over to their mums to buy tomorrow night's supper, the studies indicate, although it might buy them the junk food they crave. Jobs are done - and sometimes overdone - to be able to afford the tapes, the jeans, the trainers, the pop concert tickets: the things without which young materialistic lives are not worth living. While children's earnings benefit the family indirectly, the money is generally spent on the earner.
This can be A Good Thing for everyone concerned. But there is a down-side. Earnings from part-time work can engender what American researchers Greenberger and Steinberg call "premature affluence" which may lead to unrealistic expectations, including the idea that further education is less desirable than getting a job and making even more money.
Whatever the motivation, children's work needs to be seen for what it is: a practice that, although widespread, is by and large unregulated and which may have negative effects on children's health and education. The scale of the issue is important: Britain has the largest child workforce in Europe -accounting for one-third of Europe's working children. This fact, coupled with Britain's status as the only country in the European Union without a minimum wage, means that we have a huge, underpaid workforce, where Third World practices meet First World aspirations Earlier this year the Government made its views on child employment explicit by blocking a new European directive giving greater protection to children and young people at work. It imposed a six-year delay on the directive - a move that was defended by the thenEmployment Secretary David Hunt. "UK law," he said, "has always protected children from any form of exploitation and from any risk to their health and safety."
Notwithstanding Mr Hunt's assurances, Britain's child workforce is largely illegal. According to Chris Pond, director of the London Low Pay Unit, three-quarters of working children are employed illegally "either because they are too young, or they are doing jobs that are proscribed by law or because they are working illegal hours" (see overleaf). What we have instead, says Michael Lavalette is "a hodge podge of national and local laws and regulations with wide regional variations."
Add to that hodge podge a good bit of bodge. When an update to the two existing pieces of legislation was attempted in the form of the 1973 Employment of Children Act, it was never enacted because the Government was not prepared to plough resources into the regulatory mechanisms it set out. It is still not implemented, leaving us with national laws dating back to 1933.
In the absence of any modern laws relating to current social trends, a plethora of local authority by-laws covers the registration of working children and work permits. Most have not been touched since the 1980s and some were written in the late 1940s, according to Ann Searle, former principal education social worker for Birmingham and now a consultant and expert in child employment legislation. But even where relatively good by-laws exist, she says they are not enforced. The current emphasis on truancy by the education welfare service means "most local authorities can't prioritise child employment".
One positive initiative - which could serve as a model for other local authorities - is the development of new draft by-laws drawn up by a working party of child employmenteducation welfare officers from most of the inner London boroughs, in collaboration with the Department of Health.
Where Inner London Education Authority by-laws once existed across inner London, there are now separate local authority regulations, some of which are better than others. The rationale behind coming together to work out laws that would apply to all the London LEAs is simple, says Marie Frye, senior court and child employment officer for Islington. "We all do cross-borough work. For example, children from Hackney come to Islington to work. We need to have an overall view and wanted London-wide by-laws covering all aspects of child employment."
The quality of the regulations are child-centred and probably the most up to date in the country, covering, says Ms Frye, "every single area of child employment (excluding agricultural work), children working in entertainment and child safety."
Every year children die or are injured while they are working. The Low Pay Unit's studies show that one in three school aged children who work has been involved in an accident.
Perhaps if local authorities' priorities were focused more on child employment regulations, children like the five-and-a-half-year-old Greenwich boy who was killed when he fell off a milk float would still be alive. As would the 12-year-old boy who fell to his death from a farm tractor he was driving and the girl selling flowers on a pavement who was killed when a car hit her.
Clearly, laws and regulations and the means to enforce them are necessary when employers are careless enough to put children into such high-risk situations - and when parents don't know what their children are actually doing when they are out working. But what about the whole notion of children under the age of 16 going out to work? Is it a practice that we can look upon as a part of growing up, learning responsibility and discipline? Or is it an activity that carries with it risks other than the more obvious physical ones?
Jim McKechnie, a psychologist in the Department of Applied Social Studies at the University of Paisley, has co-authored the most recent studies on child labour in this country. Carried out in 1992 and 1993, the reports highlight crucial points about the effects of part-time work on children's education - issues that have not been thoroughly researched since a 1972 study by Emrys Davies. In that report, Davies found that children who worked had lower academic achievement than their non-working peers, had a problem with school attendance and were less inclined to continue their schooling past the compulsory age.
McKechnie's study of 985 Cumbrian pupils paints a more positive and complex picture. He was surprised to find a distinction between children with a current job whose predicted GCSE grades in English were higher (A and B) than those who had worked, but who had dropped out of the jobs market (C to G). Those who had stopped working were also less motivated at school, more likely to play truant and more keen to leave at 16. Another important difference was the number of hours worked. Children doing five hours or less were more likely to plan going on to full-time further education than those working 10 hours or more, and to have a good attendance record at school.
This reflects the positive aspects of the studies of Greenberger and Steinberg, who cited possible benefits of part-time work for children as "increased responsibility and maturity, an awareness of business and economic matters and improved skills in the management of their own finances". McKechnie's findings on the implications of hours worked concurs, too, with the Americans' view that "whether students work is less likely to make a differenceIthan how much they work". The watershed for time spent working before it negatively affects schoolwork and attitudes is 10 hours a week. Over 10 hours, he found, pupils had lower attainment, poorer attendance records and less inclination to continue full-time education. The beneficial effects of employment were among children who worked fewer hours.
What implications does this data have for schools?
Ann Searle, for one, would like to see schools taking on the issue of work in positive ways that acknowledge children's experience. "I do think there is a place for children to be employed but I'd like to see it as part of their educational, spiritual and social development. We should build curricular matter around their experiences of work.
"One aspect of this is more links between employers and education, for example, in work experience, with schools becoming more aware and involved in the type of work children do. The truth of the matter is that children are part of the economy, part of the part-time work force that this country is becoming increasingly dependent on. But we are a country that pretends that children don't work."