Child labour in Italy analysed

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In November 2000, the Cgil trade union confederation published the findings of a survey, which estimates that child labour involves around 370,000 minors in Italy. The study identifies the causes of the problem in factors such as economic poverty and cultural backwardness, and finds that child labour is a relatively heterogeneous phenomenon in terms of the child's work history, the identity of the employer, and the school/work relationship. The study stresses the importance in the fight against child labour not only of measures to suppress it, but also of the involvement of social actors and institutions. National and international social partner action plays a role, as illustrated by a number of recent examples.

Child labour in Italy is a phenomenon that is relatively little studied and difficult to analyse, owing to the fact that it is associated with illegal employment and is part of the clandestine, underground economy. However, trade unions are increasingly concerned with the problem and this concern has recently prompted the Cgil union confederation to conduct a wide-ranging survey of child labour in Italy ("Lavoro e lavori minorili", Gianni Paone and Anna Teselli, Ediesse, Rome, 2000), the results of which were presented in November 2000.

The principal aim of the survey was to determine the characteristics of the child labour phenomenon, and in particular to identify the children who work and to reconstruct their life-histories. To this end, a qualitative survey was conducted which covered a total of 16 territorial units (large cities, medium-to-small towns and provinces) deemed particularly significant in terms of the extent of child labour. In each of these units, minors were contacted in meeting places like bars, amusement arcades, youth clubs and schools. A total of 600 interviews were conducted.

Definition, extent and causes

In the study, child labour was defined with reference to law 977/67 - modified in October 1999 to incorporate the EU Directive on the protection of young workers (94/33/EC)- which sets the minimum age for access to employment at 15 years. The survey considered "unlawful" activities - those in which the goods or services produced are legal and the breach of the law concerns the employment of minors - distinguishing them from "criminal" activities - where the goods and services produced are also illegal. The study did not consider informal, unpaid types of work (eg in childcare) or the agricultural sector, which has specific features of its own, and also concentrated on work performed on a continuous basis (and therefore not seasonal work).

Although the main concern of the study was, as mentioned above, to reconstruct the life-histories of working minors, it also sought to quantify the phenomenon. An estimation was made by using a combination of indicators relating to:

  • education - school attendance, drop-out rates, and repeats;
  • the family - the composition of households and the number of working members of the family; and
  • the underground economy.

On the basis of these indicators, under-age labour in Italy can be estimated to involve around 370,000 children, a level much higher than estimates provided by other studies - for example, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has estimated child labour at 12,000 units (in 1996), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) at 200,000-300,000 (in 1993), and Censis (an Italian research institute) at 230,000. This marked variation confirms the difficulty of measuring the extent of child labour. From a geographical point of view, the Cgil study finds that child labour is more widespread in southern Italy (60% of the total) although it is relatively common in the north of the country as well (40%).

According to the researchers, child labour is caused by not only economic but also cultural poverty. Only in a limited number of cases is it due to the economic poverty of the household, though for households suffering from economic poverty, child labour is a means to augment their incomes. Besides economic aspects, therefore, the cultural attitudes of the under-age workers' families and their immediate social environment are also important. For example, in many cases the family tends to dismiss the value of education compared with work, with the latter seen as a factor which enables individual fulfilment. Consequently, numerous minors view work as a means to satisfy their needs through obtaining money. Moreover, small family-run firms tend to view child labour as a resource which facilitates their operations.

The heterogeneity of child labour

One of the survey's most significant findings is that child labour assumes a variety of forms. This heterogeneity can be seen by considering three aspects:

  • the work-history of the minor involved;
  • the employer (the family or a third party); and
  • the relationship between school and work (continuing at school or dropping out).

As regards work histories, the majority of the minors surveyed were aged between 11 and 14. One important feature is the number of years since the minor first started working, in particular whether he or she has been working for less than one year or more than two. Given the extremely young age-group concerned, the fact of having worked for two or more years means that entry to work has come about very early for those involved, and that work occupies an important part of the minor's life. There is a general lack of opportunities for professional development for such minors. In the case of the children who have been working longest (two years or more), there is found to be marked mobility among sectors of activity. In this regard, it should be borne in mind that minors tend to have low-skilled jobs, a factor which obviously increases mobility. One of the sectors in which child labour is most widespread is commerce, especially food retailing, followed by crafts and the construction industry.

Another key factor is the employer, which may be the family or a third party. The formalisation of the employment relationship differs according to the type of employer. In general, work tends to be casual if the employer is the family, while it is more continuous if performed for a third party. In the latter case, the work also tends to be distributed more uniformly across the days of the week. Working hours also tend to be longer if the minor works for a third party (in many cases as much as eight hours a day, while minors working for their families tend to work around four hours a day). Moreover, as is to be expected, mobility is lower among minors who work for their families. However it should be borne in mind that when the employer is the family, the minor is at considerable risk of exploitation. For example, children who work for their families tend to have longer work histories, and have consequently begun working earlier, or their wages may be lower or paid less regularly.

The relationship between child labour and education is also problematic. According to the researchers, the conventional view that associates child labour with dropping out of school is questionable. The key variable is the continuity or otherwise of the employment relationship. In fact, only children who work on a continuous basis tend not to attend school. Educational failures (ie repeat years) even as early as elementary school are one of the main reasons for quitting school. By contrast, children who work on a casual basis tend to continue their studies. However, even those who continue at school have difficulties, of which repeat years and absenteeism are the indicators. Work therefore does not lead to the abandonment of school, but it has a deleterious effect on the quality of school studies.

Bearing in mind that minors' employment relationships are discontinuous mainly where the family is the employer, the relationship between child labour and the school highlights the ambivalent role of the family. On the one hand, the family enables children who work to continue at school; but, on the other hand, because these children work, they are at considerable risk of educational failure.

Another issue raised by the survey is the high risk of social exclusion to which working children are exposed. Analysis of the relationship between school and child labour, in addition to the above considerations concerning the lack of opportunities for professional development and the low-skilled nature of the jobs performed, emphasises that under-age workers are faced with precarious futures. This precariousness is twofold, in that it comprises the risk of exclusion from the labour market and that of being marginalised in the weak segments of the labour force. Child workers are to some extent aware of this risk and express a certain amount of concern about their futures. Many of them do not intend to stay in the same job but are nevertheless unable to imagine doing anything else. Hence the uncertainty over the future typical of adolescents is particularly marked among under-age workers. Moreover, as far as "work identity" is concerned, demotivation is the feature that tends to predominate.

Social exclusion is also due to the fact, mainly in the case of formalised employment relationships, that work excludes the child not only from school but also from relations with his or her friends during free time. Thus contact with the main "agencies of socialisation" - the school and the peer group - is precluded. As a consequence, child labour not only excludes training and professional development but also negatively affects socialisation processes.

How to combat child labour?

Knowledge about the phenomenon of child labour is essential if measures are to be designed to combat it. Consequently, according to Sergio Cofferati, the general secretary of Cgil, suppression of child labour should be combined with measures to prevent it from occurring in the first place. To this end, it is seen as important to reform the school system and to remedy situations of social breakdown by involving families, voluntary organisations and other social agencies. Also important is action by the government and the social partners, which should take place at two levels: national and international.

At the national level, in April 1998 a charter of commitments was signed by the Italian government and central social partner organisations, which seeks to safeguard the rights of infants and adolescents and to eliminate the exploitation of minors (IT9804162N). The main measures envisaged are:

  • raising the school-leaving age (IT9812334F) and drawing up schemes to encourage the return to school of children who have abandoned their studies;
  • increasing repressive action against clandestine employment and the introduction of sanctions against firms which use under-age labour, both in Italy and abroad; and
  • economic support for poor families.

The charter also envisages forms of certification (product marks and a register of companies) attesting that a firm has not used child labour at any stage of the production process. A bill on the matter was approved by the Senate in June 1999.

Collective bargaining action is also important. For example, in 1998 the trade unions and the employers' associations in the textiles and leather sector signed an agreement which provides for the introduction of a "social mark" attesting that child labour has not been used to manufacture products (IT9803153N). Again in 1998, following allegations by a Turkish textiles trade union that child labour was being used in the factories of Bogaziçi, a company manufacturing garments for the Benetton group, an agreement was signed by the Italian and Turkish unions and the Benetton and Bogaziçi group which prohibited the employment of children aged under 15 (IT9810185N).

International action by trade unions is also important for the fight against child labour. To this end, one of the objectives pursued by European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and other international union organisations is the introduction of "social clauses" in international trade agreements in order to establish a minimum standard of workers' rights, including a ban on child labour (EU9801177F). ETUC has recently adopted a major resolution on the issue (EU0012286F), while the European sectoral level social dialogue has seen a number of agreements on fighting child labour (EU9911213F and EU9810131F). Moreover, the Italian trade unions are involved in ongoing projects in the developing countries based on cooperation with local unions, in order to take action against child labour.


The phenomenon of child labour tends to be associated with the developing countries. Significant in this regard is the controversy surrounding some multinational companies, which are accused of using child labour for the purpose of "social dumping".

The survey conducted by Cgil confirms that child labour is present in the industrialised countries as well, and within these countries, also in areas with higher levels of development (central and northern Italy, for instance).

The marked heterogeneity of child labour also undermines that effective action to combat it cannot be based solely on suppression, although this is indispensable. National and international legislation, including ILO and United Nations conventions, are thus essential instruments with which to take action against child labour. Also important, however, is the role of social institutions and actors, given that combating child labour also means tackling social exclusion and marginalisation. Consider, for example, the ambivalent role of the family and the need to eliminate economic and cultural poverty highlighted in the Cgil study.

Besides the legislation already in place which prohibits child labour, social clauses in international trade agreements are considered to be one of the most effective means to tackle the problem. Collective bargaining, at both the national and international levels, may also perform an important function. These measures, however, raise the difficult issue of the relationship between national and international regulation. At a time when the international division of labour is changing, regulation solely at the national level may well prove to be ineffective. Child labour may therefore be cited as an example of an area in which globalisation requires the definition of new rules. The use of measures such as social clauses, however, raises a series of issues concerning, for instance, who is empowered to define the minimum standards, to impose compliance with the rules, and to determine their range of application. (Marco Trentini, Ires Lombardia)

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