Research into practice

The Victorian charitable organisations highlighted the plight of children in employment and there were certainly changes made. But a study by the Children’s Legal Centre shows that the law and regulations regarding the protection of children in employment are still unclear to parents, children and employers alike.1 They showed a great variation within local authorities on how they draw up and implement their by-laws relating to the employment of children in their area. Many have not updated them in line with more recent national laws.

The Trades Union Congress commissioned the Children’s Legal Centre to prepare a report and undertake a survey of local authority by-laws on child employment. The purpose was to find out what form of employment could be taken by 13 and 14 year olds, the accessibility of the by-laws and the extent to which they complied with national laws.

The study found an unacceptable variation among the by-laws, so that children could take different forms of work depending on where they lived and where they were employed. This showed a lack of agreement between authorities on what employment may be harmful to children. Worryingly they found some by-laws did not reflect national law, particularly over the minimum age of employment. Additionally, many by-laws did not specify the times that children could work.

A major concern was that the distinction between the employment of 13 and 14 year olds was blurred. Under the Children and Young People Act 1933, children aged 14 can take part-time work, with the employment of 13 year olds permitted only in limited circumstances. It seems many local authority by-laws do not clarify this distinction, in effect reducing the age of employment to 13. The only authority in the study to set a minimum age for employment at 14 was Coventry.

The study showed a significant difference between 13 and 14 year olds being employed in street trading. A local authority may make it a by-law authorising children of 14 to be employed by their parents in street trading (and some have explicitly permitted this). However, many either did not mention street trading or stated that no child of any age can be employed in street trading.

The study concluded that local authorities, children, parents and employers are poorly informed about the rights of children in employment. It is arguable that in relying on local authority by-laws to regulate child employment, the government is neither implementing EU directive 94/33/EC or the United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child 1989.

This issue must be of urgent concern for social workers who are involved in reviewing arrangements for looked after children. Does the child have a part-time job? What is it? Is it beneficial to the child? Does it comply with the law and local by-laws?

Young people may benefit from having the experience and responsibility of a part-time job while of school age, but it appears that the implementation of the legislation, which is there to protect children, is lax. It would seem to be a reasonable suggestion that social services departments examine their local by-laws, and ensure that decisions made relating to the part-time jobs of children in their care are legal. This may then promote a wider discussion of child employment in the area.

1Carolyn Hamilton, Too Much Too Young: Sorting out Law on Teenagers at Work, Children’s Legal Centre, 2002

Gaynor Wingham is director of the consultancy Professional Independents.

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