YOUTH EMPLOYMENT: The Work Life Balance

By PJ White

| 05 November 2003

Most young people take part-time jobs while still at school as a means of gaining independence. But as PJ White discovers, some employers abuse this enthusiasm with potentially horrific consequences.

A part-time job in a local butcher's shop in Staffordshire turned into a nightmare for 14-year-old Sam Crosby when his hand got stuck in a mincing machine. The butcher was fined 8,000, but Sam will have to live with a permanent disability (see panel).

Two weeks later, Sainsbury's in Leatherhead, Surrey, was fined 6,600 and ordered to pay 350 costs after pleading guilty to offences of employing school-age workers without a permit and beyond the permitted hours.

These are just two cases of illegal school-age employment that made local newspaper headlines in the past month. But official glimpses into the hidden world of child employment are rare. Only when serious accidents occur, or when big-name businesses are found guilty of exploiting young workers, do we get an insight into the problem.

In January, a Hull trader was prosecuted after employing 14-year-old Peter Parish on a doughnut stall. Working alone and untrained, Parish tried to refuel the stall's petrol-powered generator without switching off the machine or allowing it to cool. Stall-holders helped beat out the flames that engulfed him, but he required six weeks of skin grafts.

Last year, a Devon pub was prosecuted after a 15-year-old employee fractured and lacerated his finger while using a vegetable-processing machine.

Big-name offenders

The breaches by Sainsbury's came to light not because of injury, but through the efforts of the country's most legally active child employment officer. Ian Hart, of Surrey County Council, has 23 successful prosecutions to his name. They include actions against McDonald's, Tesco, Forbuoys Newsagents, Thorpe Park and Woolworths.

In March, pub chain Whitbread pleaded guilty to 31 offences relating to the illegal employment of schoolchildren in bars and was fined a record 13,950. In the Leatherhead case, Surrey County Council accused Sainsbury's of putting the health and education of school-age staff at risk. Hart called the company's attitude "appalling", saying that the prosecution followed a series of discussions and written warnings to the company about its breaches in several stores in the area.

Hart is convinced the system is failing young people because regulations concerning child employment have fallen into disuse. Local education authorities have a statutory duty to issue work permits to employers of 13- to 16-year-olds. Some simply process those applications when they come in - which is rarely.

He estimates that there are probably only 25 full-time child-employment officers in the country. He cites one county where a fish-and-chip shop has been issued with five warning notices for employing schoolchildren.

They are all ineffective, because the authority has no intention of prosecuting.

Small businesses, big abusers

The most flagrant breaches of the law are in small businesses: pubs and cafes, hairdressers, newsagents and other shops and businesses where young people find part-time jobs. Sometimes employers just don't know the law.

"Some of the small employers look absolutely flummoxed when we approach them," says Hart. He believes that while larger companies tend to know the regulations, some are not always fully aware of the hours young people are working.

Simon Bowkett, team leader at Connexions Bournemouth, Dorset & Poole, thinks the general lack of concern about the problem is because employing young people can seem to be an all round win-win situation. Employers benefit from a supply of labour at rates much lower than the minimum wage.

Young people get work experience and money. Parents generally approve of their kids being gainfully occupied. "Even if it is known to be illegal, it can be winked at all round," he says.

Bowkett estimates that 60 per cent of 13- to 16-year-olds he speaks to are working. At the lower end of the age range they do paper rounds. The older ones do shop work, hotel and other tourist trade work. They help out in family businesses, on farms and, in at least one case, a scrap metal business. A lot of work is hidden, especially if it is paid cash in hand.

Bowkett's estimate is higher than statistics gathered by various studies, with 40 to 43 per cent of 10- to 16-year-olds estimated to be working.

The work they are doing is not just baby-sitting and newspaper rounds, says Margaret Berry, senior environmental health officer with Calderdale Council in West Yorkshire. "Many are doing adult work," she says.

In research for an MSc, Berry interviewed young people from schools in Calderdale and Oldham in Greater Manchester. More than a quarter of the young workers were employed in the food industry, cooking, waiting on tables or cleaning.

"Depending on what they actually do, most of this is likely to be illegal," she says. Of the 131 young people she surveyed, only one made vague mention of the need for a work permit.

She also spoke to one girl who, at 16, works 32 hours a week for her father's business. She is paid 15 a week. She said that she first worked when she was eight years old and did the family ironing for 20 pence an hour.

Too tired for school

Simon Gaston, 14, recently gave up his job - or one of them - to devote more time to his GCSEs. From the age of 12 he worked selling flowers on a market stall in Dorchester high street. After conversations with Connexions, the school and his parents, he now just has his paper round.

"My alarm clock was going off at five o'clock every day, except for Sunday," he says. "I used to start work at six and finish at eight in time for school. I put the metal frame up, put all the flowers round. After school I'd do the same: pack down, sweep up. On Saturday I'd just work the whole day.

"When it was Valentine's Day I worked all night and day. That was hard. There were about 20 of us wrapping flowers all night."

Simon is well aware that his schoolwork was suffering. Sometimes he'd be late for school. He got detentions for lateness, which he also had to skip because he had to get back for work. "Year 9 was all right, but now I need to start knuckling down," he says.

Working every day meant the money was rolling in. He explains: "I got 130 quid a week: I saved half of it; I used to blow it on stuff I didn't even need. I used to buy a new skateboard every week. After I didn't work I found out pretty quickly who my real friends were. That was annoying, feeling that people were just using me."

He has plans to stick at school and possibly do business studies at A-level. But he also has no doubt that he will be drawn back to work on the markets. "I want to work for myself because I know there's a lot of money in flowers," he says. "I'm going to learn to drive first, so I can get my own van. Then I'll start working the markets. I'll probably get another kid working for me."

Exploiting young people

Few people are 100 per cent opposed to such entrepreneurial drive; that would probably be futile anyway. No-one denies that work can help young people acquire skills, develop confidence and independence. But there is a cause for concern when work is exploitative, dangerous, or when it interferes with education.

Another supermarket giant, Tesco, pleaded guilty at North West Surrey Magistrates Court in April 2002 to four cases of illegal employment of children the previous autumn.

During a four-week period, 43 out of 55 days were worked illegally by its school-going employees and, in the same period, more than 135 hours were worked illegally.

When Surrey County Council prosecuted Tesco, Ian Hart found school-age young people employed until 10.30pm three nights a week. "When do they do their homework?" he asks.

Teachers are well placed to recognise the symptoms. "It's the first thing we look at if schoolwork falls off," says Ray Buckland, Simon Gaston's head of year at The Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester, Dorset.

Tiredness can lead to accidents at work. So can inadequate training.

As part-timers and short-term workers, young people can experience all the disadvantages of their casual status. Employers may calculate that they will not be around long enough to repay the training that an adult would expect. An employer who is willing to ignore child employment laws may also be less than scrupulous about health and safety rules. The result is that young people, the most vulnerable workers, are given less - not more - protection than older, more experienced workers.

Sam Crosby is better placed than most to have a view on the subject.

He lost a hand for his trouble. His advice for other young people thinking of getting a job is emphatic: follow safety instructions. "Ask a lot of questions," he says. "Ask why. Don't just say, 'yes sir'. Don't just watch them do it and try to do it yourself. It's a lot harder than you think."

Money of their own

The question of payment is a tricky one to calculate. Some young workers are helping out with the family budget. Some are using their earnings to buy school uniforms or pay for trips.

But most young people are working to line their own pockets. They are not pushed into employment by poverty, but attracted to it by the availability of regular work in areas of low unemployment. Employers are grateful for a supply of ready workers in unpopular low-status casual jobs. Good workers are appreciated, and offered more hours, whatever their age.

So while many young workers are paid miserly hourly rates, many are paid just below adult minimum wage. By working many more than the 12 hours a week permitted by law, a 15-year-old can have a very comfortable income.

Earning too much too young can remove young people's incentive to continue their education. An education maintenance allowance of 40 a week is not much of a carrot for someone well used to earning more than double that. There are also tricky social difficulties in managing your earnings when your peers have comparatively little.

But like many aspects of child employment, these issues are likely to remain quietly hidden. Hull City Council told YPN that council inspectors "routinely query employers as to whether young persons are employed at inspection visits".

However, as Calderdale Council's Berry points out, most inspections take place in office hours. And most schoolchildren are working evenings and weekends. Employers are hardly likely to volunteer that they have a teenager illegally working at the weekend. As she says: "They just keep quiet."

SAM'S STORY

When he was 13, Sam Crosby got a job as a Saturday lad in a butcher's shop in Littleworth, Stafford. Last April, still only 14, he was making sausages. His hand was dragged into the blades of the mincing machine.

He lost all the fingers of his right hand, including the knuckles.

"The job was hard work," remembers Sam. "From half past seven in the morning to four or five. I had 10 minutes break for my breakfast and half an hour break at lunchtime.

"At first I was cleaning boards, boxes, floors, walls and the mincer when it had been taken apart. But then I moved on to using the mincer and the meat slicer.

"I was paid 20 for the whole day. At Christmas I used to work five days nonstop up to Christmas Eve. The money wasn't good really.

"I didn't really get any training. I just got told: 'This is how you do that. Try it.' So I did.

"I didn't know anything about a work permit. I only learned about that when I had my accident.

"I was making sausages at the time. I was mincing the pork strips. I had a plaster on my thumb and it got caught. The barrel of the machine was so strong it just dragged my hand into the machine.

"I used to be scared of the mincer because the blades are that sharp. It looked really horrible. There was meant to be a restricter plate so that if anything did get caught only two fingers can go through.

"I thought I had broken my wrist, 'cos that is what it felt like. Then I pulled my hand out and I had no fingers.

"I'm more argumentative now. I just get dead angry sometimes. I can't do the things I used to do. I used to do a lot of sport but I've had to cut down. I'm playing football, but I have to watch my hand.

"My friends are acting like I'm the normal Sam with two hands. I like that, but I don't like people butting in when I'm trying to do something. I like to be independent. That's why I got a little job in the first place."

"I thought I had broken my wrist, 'cos that is what it felt like. Then I pulled my hand out of the mincing machine and I had no fingers"

EMPLOYMENT LAW

- The laws governing child employment are complex and widely ignored. Up to two million school-age children in the UK are working - an estimated 75 per cent of them illegally. The rules say young people must have a work permit. They also limit the hours worked and prohibit certain occupations

- Precise regulations vary according to the age of the young person and local by-laws. Working before 7am or after 7pm on a school day is not permitted. On Saturday, 15- and 16-year-olds can work up to eight hours. Only two hours may be worked on Sundays, and not more than 12 hours in a school week

- No school-age child can sell alcohol, cigarettes or medicine. They cannot be involved in gambling or sell on the street or door to door. They must not do any job that could cause them injury or harm

- Young people of school age cannot work in a nightclub, in an amusement arcade or fairground, in a warehouse or factory, in a slaughterhouse, or in a commercial kitchen

- Research suggests that young people working up to five hours a week do better in exams. But education performance suffers among those working more than 10 hours a week

- One in 10 young workers have played truant in order to work

- Find out more about youth employment regulation at www.brtf.gov.uk or www2.essex.ac.uk/clc/hi/publications/pubs/014.htm.

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