Child labour: 1.5m work illegally

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An estimated 1.5 million children under the age of 16 are working illegally in Britain, often in dangerous conditions, according to figures prepared by the House of Commons library, writes Paul Routledge.

Ian McCartney MP, Labour's employment spokesman, yesterday called for a Government inquiry into the scale and risks of unlawful child labour, after a firm in John Major's constituency was fined pounds 12,500 for employing children as young as 14.

Hilton Meats, a Cambridgeshire meat packing company, pleaded guilty to five offences under the 1920 Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act at Huntingdon Magistrates Court.

The breaches came to light when officials of the Health and Safety Executive making a routine visit found five children aged 14 to 16 working there. Mr McCartney said the Huntingdon case was the tip of an iceberg of illegal child labour. "It is a form of child abuse, and it is rife in this country. You do not have to go to the Third World to see child slave labour. You only have to go as far as Manchester."

There are no official figures for the number of children working in Britain, but the Commons library cited a study which calculates that "there may be as many as 2 million child workers," 74 per cent of whom are estimated to be working illegally.

Local surveys support the contention that illegal child labour is widespread. At two schools in Strathclyde, 65 children aged 13 or 14 were found to have jobs - and only one was working legally. Another survey among 7,000 10-16 year olds in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham and London discovered that 88 per cent were working illegal hours, in jobs forbidden for their age group and without the necessary permits.

"The Government must launch an immediate investigation into the size of this problem," said Mr McCartney. "We will also look into any evidence brought to us anonymously or in confidence."

Hilton Meats said it was confused about the law, and had acted in ignorance. Magistrates said lack of understanding was "no excuse". The law imposes a general prohibition on the employment of children under 13.

Older children under 16 cannot be employed during school hours, before 7am or after 7pm, or for more than two hours on any school day, or for more than two hours on a Sunday. Local by-laws often tighten up on these national rules.