British schoolchildren today enjoy a historically unprecedented degree of economic advantage and legal protection. But if they find such protections restrictive and seek to evade them, they can become very vulnerable to exploitation when fending for themselves illicitly in the labour market.
The National Association of Schoolmasters reported in 1987 that ‘many tens of thousands of children’ were illegally moonlighting. It admitted that ‘Children wanted the money, parents wanted them to work, and employers were too ready to break the law’, but could point to low wages and blatant disregard for health and safety regulations by employers; thus, between 1975 and 1986, 172 children under 16 were killed while working on farms. 1
However, it is to the Third World that one must look to see child exploitation at its grossest. A bounding birth rate and dire poverty combine to make children expendable, or valuable only in so far as their appealing qualities are an economic asset, as street sellers, say, beggars and child prostitutes. As urbanization grows apace so the problems of street waifdom, sweatshop slavery and sexual abuse become more widespread. 2
All this carries echoes of the world described by Dickens, Mayhew, Sims and many others in Victorian Britain. But while we have emerged from the most shocking forms of child exploitation, the tendencies, the potential, are still there. The hidden problem of sexual abuse within the family has come to greater prominence in recent years; homeless youngsters adrift in the big cities can slide into prostitution; and the government’s Youth Opportunities Programme can lend itself to the exploitation of semi-conscripted youngsters by unscrupulous employers.
This book examines the status and condition of British children,