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We should liberalise children's employment

We worry a lot about the problems of getting young people into the workforce, as school leavers or even as graduates. While youth unemployment is thankfully much lower here than in most of Europe, it is still far too high.

One reason could be that many new labour market entrants have never held a part-time job while at school. Early employment experience can be invaluable for giving children an insight into the nature of work, improving self-discipline and self-esteem, and allowing them access to goods and services which their parents perhaps couldn’t afford to give them. There is also evidence that contacts made early can lead to permanent employment later.

Although there is currently no reliable data source (why the Labour Force Survey doesn’t ask households about children’s jobs I’ve no idea), anecdotal evidence suggests that the numbers working have been falling as a result of such factors as increased affluence, the growing demands of school examinations, paranoid fear of sexual abuse, and a decline in the availability of some traditional ‘children’s work’ such as milk and newspaper rounds. But regulation is surely a factor.

The ILO, the United Nations and the European Union have all for many years had codes which in principle completely forbid employment before school leaving age. This reflects a revulsion against the employment of children for long hours and in dangerous conditions, the norm in most countries in the early nineteenth century, and still common in many parts of the developing world. In economic terms children are nowadays  deemed unable to consent to work, presumably on the grounds that they cannot form a balanced view of its costs (for example, potential damage to health and education) and benefits, or may not be able to assert their preferences against those of their parents. The banning of work is the logical corollary of mandated education.

But EU countries are allowed 'derogations' to permit some part-time work by schoolchildren. The relevant British primary legislation in fact dates back to the Children and Young Persons Act of 1933 (when, incidentally, school leaving age was just 14). The current legal position in England - slightly different rules apply in other parts of the UK - is full of detailed prohibitions. You must be at least 14, though there are some minor exceptions, in most paid employment. This must be what is described as ‘light’ work. Examples of permitted work in official guidance include newspaper delivery (with recommended weights of bags), hairdressing, office work, shop work including shelf stacking, and some agricultural or horticultural work. You can’t work in manufacturing, construction, transport or other ‘industrial’ work – classified in a sectoral manner so that, for instance, you can’t do office work if it is an industrial sector such as transport (unless in a family firm) but you can do similar work in, say, an advertising agency. You can’t work in an amusement arcade but you can work on a fairground stall.

The position is complicated because the 1933 Act gave local authorities discretion to institute their own by-laws, meaning that there are significant variations between areas. In some local authorities children can deliver milk, in others they cannot. Work in street trading is forbidden in this area, not in that. You can serve alcohol when waiting on table in one town, but not in another. Most importantly, some areas require employers to have permits to employ children, while others do not. Moreover, even in localities where permits are legally required, there are big variations in compliance. Overall, it is estimated that only about 15 per cent of employed children are covered by such permits.

There are further complications about the hours which you are permitted to work. All work must be done between 7am and 7pm. On a school day you can only work for two hours. On a non-school day you can only work up to 5 hours if you are under 15, or 8 hours if you are fifteen or over. There are mandated breaks of one hour which apply if you are working more than four hours in one day. You can’t work more than 12 hours a week in term time. Outside term time an under-15 can work 25 hours a week, while a 15-year-old can work up to 35 hours; however this only applies to full weeks, so if term ends on a Tuesday that is treated as a term-time week. No schoolchild is allowed to work more than two hours on a Sunday, whatever their religious beliefs or lack of them. Different working hours rules apply to children on unpaid work experience…and so on.

Given this mess, it’s hardly surprising that experts agree that the majority of child employees are probably working illegally. Very few employers, children, teachers or parents seem to have anything approaching a full understanding of the rules which cover teenage employment. Local authorities have varying degrees of commitment to enforcement. Some businesses who might offer work may be deterred by their fear of getting it wrong, or because those rules that they do understand are inflexible.

In his review of employment law for the coalition, Adrian Beecroft argued that child employment rules could be greatly simplified, and the permit system scrapped, without danger to youngsters. He might have taken inspiration from New Zealand where, by contrast with most developed countries, a much more permissive attitude has been taken to child employment, which consequently seems to be rather more widespread than in Britain. A good deal of evidence has been accumulated that this has no negative consequences. For example a recent longitudinal study looked at the lasting effects (up to age 32) of schoolchildren’s paid employment on a range of factors including academic achievement, psychological wellbeing, smoking, drug and alcohol use. Its lead author concluded that ‘moderate part-time work is unlikely to be detrimental in countries like New Zealand’.

British kids are in any case, like other workers, protected by some of the strongest health and safety regulation in Europe, as well as a host of other employment laws. This being so, we ought to revive Beecroft’s recommendation as one relatively costless way of helping young people to get an early start in understanding the all-important business of work.

Comments (1)
No doubt the complexity and diversity of the regulations puts off some potential employers of children and encourages others to ignore all of the regulations. I wonder if we could keep Vince Cable out of trouble by getting him to simplify some of the regulations and scrap others. After all, he is supposed to be 'liberal' isn't he?

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As in all IEA publications, the views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and not those of the Institute (which has no corporate view), its managing trustees, Academic Advisory Council or senior staff.

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