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Nigel Harris

Thinking it over...

The Happiest Days of your Life

(March 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 74, March 1985, p. 16.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A regular new column by Nigel Harris

EMANUELA De Marzo, eight and a half years old, worked in a bakery – from 7.00 till 8.30 in the morning, and 1.00 to 10.00 in the afternoon and evening, with school in between from 8.30 to 12.30. His hours – and conditions – of work came to light only because he reported to hospital after three of his fingers were sliced off in one of the bakery’s machines.

The case of Salvatore Cazzolino, aged eight, came to light in the same way; he reported to hospital after his right forearm was severed under the roller of a planing machine in the timber factory where he worked.

There are perhaps one to two million children employed illegally in Italy. Because they are illegal, they have no rights; they work long hours, some on the night shift, and without holidays. A 1971 Ministry of Labour survey showed that two thirds of those that worked dodged school altogether (and only just over a third qualified for the five year certificate of elementary education).

They worked in small scale factories – engineering, textiles and garments, footwear, and petty assembly operations (ball point pens, padlocks, toys). Some worked at home in cottage trades; some went to factories to help their mothers; some were in loading and packing in the fish docks, in agriculture or markets.

The numbers are quite small in Italy, tiny in comparison to the uncounted millions in India – from building labourers, street sellers, scavengers and sweat shop workers. In Sivakasi town in Tamilnadu State, 45,000 children work in tiny print shops, fireworks and matchmaking factories – ‘the largest single concentration of child labour in the world’ as a recent report describes it.

Most are aged 10 to 14, but the youngest the survey found was four. They work on piece rates – in matchmaking – for up to twelve hours in dark sheds. They live up to 45 kilometres from the workplaces and are collected by buses at 4.00 a.m. and returned home at between 6 and 8.00 p.m., for a twelve hour working day. ‘If we don’t make the specified number (of matches),’ one boy says, ‘sometimes we are not allowed to get into the buses that take us home’.

The top daily wage is ten rupees (about 83p). Of course, the Indian Constitution guarantees that ‘no child shall be employed in any factory or mill or be engaged in any other hazardous employment’. And the 1948 Factory Act says that employment can only be legally taken after completion of the fourteenth year.

In Thailand, parents – especially the poor in the north-east – are often forced to sell their young to labour brokers, who ship them to the factories and brothels of Bangkok (as John Pilger showed a few years ago in the Daily Mirror when be bought a young girl). In a 1979 case, fifteen girls aged under sixteen were rescued from a factory suffering from malnutrition; they worked from 5.00 a.m. to 9.00 p.m. and had done so for two years.

In Moroccan carpet factories, the Anti Slavery Society found seven-year-olds, working up to 72 hours a week without pay; their parents accepted this in order that their kids could learn a trade and be paid wages as from the age of twelve.

It is so unlike the family life of our own dear Queen, far away from the green and pleasant land. In fact, child employment never died out in Britain – kids always delivered the newspapers, some of the milk and ran errands or made tea. And British capital has a record as proud as any in making the little children suffer – employing toddlers in the mines of early Victorian England to crawl down passageways too narrow for adults.

Even now, the more successful the government is in creating a competitive labour market, in cutting restrictions (Wages Councils, the inspectorates), in encouraging small firms (always the biggest employers of minors) and home production, the more employers will try to dilute their workforce. And the higher adult unemployment, the more part-time jobs for children and women become the only means to keep up family income.

The illegal employment of children eats into the legal employment of young people – as youth unemployment rises, so does the employment of under-16s. And that is a mechanism for cutting real wages, just what Tebbit wants.

The Low Pay Unit which does excellent work in mapping out the sweated trades has done a survey of child labour in Bedfordshire, Luton and London. Between a quarter and a third of school-aged children worked, half of them under the age of thirteen; 40 percent worked during the school term in paid employment, excluding odd jobs like babysitting, running errands etc.

Of the children working one in ten had more than one job, and of these, half had more than two jobs. A third delivered papers; one in five served in shops; 13 percent worked as cleaners, and another 13 percent in hotels and restaurants; others were painters and decorators, sewed garments, did clerical work or ran market stalls. And there must be a legion of others, unrecorded, working in tiny illegal sweatshops in the backstreets.

Generally the work was part time. The majority worked less than 16 hours a week (but with school, that works out as a 51 hour week), or roughly the same paid employment as nearly half all the married women who work. Some did not get off so lightly. The record-holder, a boy in London, put in 47 hours serving in a family take away; a working week including school (if he went to school) of 82 hours, not bad for Tebbitland.

Tebbit would be impressed also by the downwardly ‘flexible’ wages. For 12 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys, hourly earnings were under 50p. 36 percent of girls and 45 percent of boys were paid between 51p and one pound an hour.

Because the jobs were illegal, workers were paid outside the firm’s normal accounts and in cash. No tax or insurance was paid. The children had no normal rights – against unfair dismissal; they did not get properly specified pay slips, nor sick pay; they had no right to industrial accident compensation (indeed, parents were held liable if their children were illegally employed). The child worker is in essence in the same position as an illegal immigrant.

As in the Italian case, the problem was not the law. There are lots of statutes already available in Britain to prevent child labour. Furthermore, twelve years ago an Act was passed to tighten the regulations and fill loopholes, but the regulations have never been put into force. But with one Health and Safety inspector for every one thousand manufacturing establishments, and 119 Wages Inspectors for the whole country, it is unlikely the working kids can ever be found.

Only the accidents illuminate the reality, whether these are the damage of industrial injuries, or conscientious teachers trying to trace truants to source or find out why so many kids appear exhausted, always yawning and inattentive.

There is no regular count or estimate of the numbers of minors at work. We can only guess at how the slow evolution of the system restores the full power of the market over labour, and brings back all those good old days of the Victorian spirit.

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Last updated: 17 October 2019