opinion: climb up a rockface, stay awake all night and don't forget to smile

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The Independent Online
Eight years ago I worked as an assistant at a small outdoor centre running holidays for school groups and individual children.

I had no qualifications, but as my responsibilities were no greater than fastening climbing harnesses, organising midnight walks and toasting marshmallows on sticks over campfires, that was not a problem. It was rather like living out my childhood again, only this time I was being paid to enjoy myself.

I earned pounds 100 per week and, as this came straight into my hand rather than via the taxman, I was more than happy with the arrangement. Money for old climbing rope really.

At the end of the summer I moved on. Nowadays it's my partner who is in the outdoor activity job market. Unlike me, he is a qualified professional instructor who has spent seven years in the business, as well as thousands of pounds on courses and assessments, not to mention his own personal experience climbing, canoeing and skiing all over the world.

So it came as a shock when he wrote to one of Britain's biggest children's outdoor activity holiday operators to test the water for future employment. Their glossy brochure positively hummed with self-satisfaction, and was stuffed full of glowing references from appreciative teachers and individuals.

High emphasis was placed on safety, and the experience and qualifications of instructors was stressed throughout. One happy customer referred to the tireless enthusiasm of staff, who could be seen smiling in the background of every colour photograph.

How they managed to raise those smiles beats me. It could not have been because they were getting rich in the job, nor because they were enjoying plenty of time off.

An accompanying booklet of guidelines for instructors told the other side of the story. This was no job for nine-to-fivers, it stressed, pointing out that it is not unusual for staff to put in a 14-hour day (10 to 12 hours is normal, and up to 24 hours is required if necessary), six days a week.

The wage? For the chief instructor, who has overall responsibility for the group of 50-plus children involved in adventurous sports such as climbing and canoeing, an amazing pounds 100 per week, plus board and lodging ... in tents.

That works out as pounds l.38 per hour for a 72-hour week. And that's for the most highly paid staff; other instructors come out with less than pounds l for each hour of responsibility, instruction and care.

Sadly this is by no means unusual. Although, of course, there are organisations which pay proper wages, they are few and far between; and they tend to be at the centres where the instructors themselves gained their qualifications.

The Lyme Bay tragedy has only too clearly highlighted the vulnerability of children involved in high-risk sports when supervised by unqualified staff, and deservedly pinpointed the need for national minimum requirements in these centres.

Parents and teachers are urged, when booking activity holidays, to look at the staff-to-children ratios, qualifications, insurance, but never at how many hours the staff work. Most parents would be more than a little concerned to learn that their offspring was being abseiled down a rock- face by someone at the end of a physically and mentally demanding 72-hour week.

Centres have unashamedly exploited their employees' love of the outdoors, using this as compensation for the meagre wages they pay.

Today this is a multi-million pound boom industry. Now employers must surely face up to their responsibilities to both children and employees.

Nobody is immune from fatigue, however much they love their work. The instructor leading a party of children on a canoeing trip in Wales that narrowly escaped disaster probably loved his work, too.

Fortunately for him, a friend of ours was teaching a group on the same lake on the same day. Our friend, tucked into the shelter of the shore, heard cries for help from the windswept lake, which he had decided was too dangerous to cross with his own party, a group of strong young men.

He and a fellow instructor fought against the wind to reach the beleaguered group, which had tipped out of an open Canadian canoe in the middle of the freezing lake. One girl was barely conscious and was suffering from hypothermia when she was pulled out of the water; she spent the night in hospital with two of her schoolfriends. That night our friend told us that the girl would have had only a few minutes left to live if she had stayed in the icy water.

They managed to get the children ashore and into an ambulance while the sheepish leader mumbled thanks and excuses.

There is no excuse for bad judgement, for not saying, "No, the conditions are not right". But then how much judgement can you honestly expect to buy for pounds l a hour?