Child labor represents until this day a huge problem worldwide. Whatever the geographical area and the cause, it compounds social inequality and discrimination. Unlike many other activities that help children develop, such as contributing to light housework or taking on a job during school holidays, child labour might limit access to education and harm a child’s physical, mental and social growth. Most probably, the first image that springs to our mind when we talk about child labor is that of a child in Africa, who is forced to work in the agricultural or manufacturing sectors, such as a mine or mines quarry. Child labour, however, is not only practised in countries from the Global South such as Africa and Latin America. In Italy, too, there are many adolescents who are involved, because of different reasons, in it - and most of the time it costs them a proper education.
But let’s start considering some numbers… According to Italian law, the age at which teenagers can officially start working is 15 years old, provided you have fulfilled the 10-year compulsory schooling. It is therefore de facto possible to start working at the age of 16, considering that compulsory schools usually start when children turn 6 years old. The only exceptions to this rule are activities in the cultural, artistic and entertainment sectors, which in any case provide specific protection for minors. We therefore speak of child labour when we refer to any kind of work that takes place in the age group up to 16 years old. According to Save The Children, child labour can be defined as a „productive activity, whether economic or domestic, including care work, that is continuous and intensive“. That said, small domestic works can be easily excluded from the list. In Italy, the number of minors who are found to be doing work before the permissible legal age still represents an unresolved mystery. According to a study carried out in the country and featured in the podcast Non è un gioco, 336.000 minors have worked between the ages of 7 and 15. Among all these children and teenagers, the majority started at the age of 13 and more than 1 out of 10 started working at the age of 11 or even earlier.
But what are the main reasons for young people to start working at this age?
From the study it appears that many of them - an interesting 38 per cent - start working to have money for themselves, and thus to be autonomous and non-dependent from their parents. A lot of young people, about 1 out of 3, feel compelled to do it in order to materially help their parents since they find themselves in a pretty critical financial situation, while others decide to enter the working field as they do not feel fulfilled in their studies. The school might, in fact, not be able to respond to their demand for education and this prompts them to find a new solution, with the most reasonable one turning out to be a job.
The job these children and teenagers are involved with may vary greatly from one another.
The most common are undoubtedly those in the field of catering. Here, young people mostly work as cook's helpers, dishwashers, bartenders or waiters in restaurants and farmhouses. Commercial activities as shop assistants, cashiers, and warehouse workers are also a pretty common field. Almost 1 out of 10 works in the countryside - and therefore in the agricultural sector, while many others find jobs as bricklayers, painters, plumbers or electricians, but also in craft workshops, garages or petrol pumps. Care work is also a usual working field, with girls being way more involved than boys in it - and most of the time they are not even being paid. In this situation, the migration background can also make a big difference.
As we mentioned before, many young people decide to start a working experience because they feel insecure with their studies. Unfortunately, Italy seems to lack a culture of skills and decent, quality work. Young people are forced to live without a long-term perspective that encourages them to invest in their education. According to ISTAT, the National Institute of Statistics, the share of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who drop out of school in 2021 without a diploma or qualification was 12.7 per cent, against a European average of 9.6 percent. This proves that the country needs a whole new reform that helps children and adolescents in their growth path; a reform that will enhance their talents, their aspirations and help them develop new and helpful skills.
And what happens to working minors who manage to study? Is there a risk that their schooling might be compromised? According to the study, children who work continuously - and thus not during the summer holidays or periods that affect school attendance – experience, particularly bumpy educational paths. This means that work performed before the legally permitted age can indeed negatively affect learning as it not only reduces the time that should be devoted to studying, consequently increasing the risk of flunking out of school, but also limits school attendance.
This is quite a serious problem especially when we talk about those 14-15-year-old adolescents who work during school time. In all, they are more or less 1 in 3. Among them, 25 percent work or have worked even during school days; almost 5 percent say they do not go to school and skip classes to work; more than half (52 percent) of the minors say that they can study and work together without any problems, however, almost half of them admit that work severely affects their ability to study properly; for the 20 percent, although it is possible to work and study at the same time, it is quite tiring; 14 percent find it impossible to study when they work and 6.5 percent manage to reconcile study and work only a few times.
This demonstrates that there is a positive correlation between child labour and school failure. The percentage of young people who failed once during secondary school or who decided to drop out of school before graduating is almost twice as high among those who worked before the age of 16 than among adolescents who did not. Hence, schools definitely miss out on the most fragile boys and girls who would need more attention and a more personalised pathway to remain connected to the school environment. Sometimes, precisely these young people need more support in learning and in acquiring future employable skills. The educational system should act soon in order to change this situation.