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The Child Labour Problem in Australia

    Patrick Parkinson, Professor of Law at the University of Sydney sees worrying gaps in local standards

Britain’s laws regulating the hours that children can work were put in place in 1933. The current law in the United States of America dates back to 1938. For decades, the exploitation of child labour in developing countries has been a matter of international concern.

Yet, remarkably, in New South Wales, in contrast to Victoria, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, the law imposes no restrictions on children’s employment, apart from in the entertainment industry and a couple of other selected occupations. There are no restrictions on the hours that children can work, and nor does the law prescribe a minimum age for working. Many employers will not employ a child below the age of 14 years and nine months, but this is not a legal requirement. It is just the earliest age at which young people can be permitted to leave school. There is no law which prevents 11-year-old children doing 30 hours work each week as long as it is not in school hours, or working a 12 hour day on a Saturday. There is no law which restricts children working through the night to help a parent meet an employer’s deadline for sewing clothes.

Nor are there many laws which aim directly to protect children from dangers in the workplace, either as employees or visitors. The general occupational health and safety legislation does not specifically address the particular risks there may be for children in workplaces. As an International Labour Organisation report put it:

    “Children are susceptible to all of the dangers that are faced by adult workers when placed in the same situation, but they are more seriously affected because they differ from adults in their anatomical, physiological and psychological characteristics.”

For example, teenagers are much more susceptible than adults to serious back injuries due to heavy lifting. The reason is that in many cases their backs are still in the process of development.

A range of laws restrict young people from engaging in certain occupations, but the laws are piecemeal and somewhat incoherent. For example, a 16-year-old can work down the mines but not be in charge of a petrol pump. The NSW Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act has a vague offence of putting a child’s physical or emotional well being at risk in employment. However, no prosecutions have ever been brought under this section. One of the problems is that most of these laws refer to paid employment. Many children work on an unpaid basis in family businesses, and are not protected by such employment legislation.

Yet the NSW Government’s own figures paint a damning picture of the State’s safety record for children and young people in workplaces. Hundreds of young people each year are permanently disabled or have to be off work for 6 months or more due to workplace accidents. No-one can claim the safety standards are adequate when so many young people are being maimed for life before they reach their 18th birthday.

The greatest dangers for children and young people are construction sites and farms. WorkCover NSW estimates that a tractor death occurs on Australian farms once every 11 days and that one in every four people killed in tractor accidents is a child under 16 years. Between 1990 and 1996, the number of children who died from accidents on farms in NSW and Queensland averaged nearly one per month; 37% of these accidents were attributable to farm machinery or vehicles. No law prohibits children under 16 riding on tractors.

The solution is to find the right balance between sensible child protection measures and other constraints. There is no reason why sensible laws which protect children in workplaces should interfere with family businesses. If a child between 10 and 14 is allowed to work for up to 12 hours per week during term-time without any need for a licence, most parents would regard that as a reasonable maximum, given the evidence that working more than 10 hours per week affects school performance. If a child is under 10, or wants to work more than 12 hours per week, then there are good reasons for requiring a licence to ensure that the work is appropriate and safe.

The advantage of having appropriate child labour laws is that they set community standards. They send clear messages about what is acceptable and what is not, what is beneficial to children and what is not, what is dangerous, and what is not. Families need to know this as much as anyone else.  It is the role of the Parliament to set such community standards after proper consultation and debate. NSW and the other Australian states which have not yet done so need to make an immediate start on this.  

(September, 2001)





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