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Paul’s eyes are big,  they seem to be huge on his little skinny face, too tanned by the sun which burn all day long and continues to burn even in the evening his little body fatigued by excessive effort. At the age of nine, one can already see the first wrinkles on his face, actual wrinkles, not expression lines. The bags under his eyes are not the consequence of rowdy nights. With a strong Sicilian accent, he talks us about his (non)life of a child worker, the second born of five brothers in a family of laborers, whose only wealth are their children.

He gets out of the bed at five o’clock in the morning, after just a few hours of sleep, in order to get, together with his Father, on the truck that takes them to the fields to pick tomatoes all day long, until the sun goes down, until adults say it is enough.

And, unfortunately, Paul’s case is not an exception. In some inland areas of Sicily and Puglia regions, but not only, there are many children like him, his peers, forced to wake up at dawn, go to work in the countryside for a few pennies which they never have the certainty to receive, without any schedules, but always till sunset and even later. It is a life scenario that depicts a non-life, and it can be seen more and more often in Italy, especially in the Southern regions of the country, but also in general on the entire peninsula, and the problem does not affect only immigrants’ children.

In Europe, Italy has the highest rate of child work exploitation and of minors who abandon school at an early age. Statistics concerning the latter seem to reflect the post-WWII situation: more than 25%, most of whom are girls. Data published by the national health observatory of childhood and adolescence (PAIDOSS) together with the National Association of the Mutilated and of the Invalids of Work (ANMIL), on the occasion of the second international forum for childhood, adolescence and family held from 24 to 26 September in Lecce with the topic “children of minor work”, are alarming. There seem to be more than 280 thousand “under 16” Italians who work for more than a million hours a day. At least 30 thousand are “at risk”, because they are being used for dangerous work or in hostile environments, that can seriously compromise their development. About 800 thousand live below the poverty line.

“Unfortunately, cases in which kids are forced to work in the evening, having to renounce rest and to expose themselves to higher probabilities of developing diseases such as diabetes and cancer, are not rare. Many of them handle constantly toxic chemical substances, as for instance, children who work as shoemakers, mechanics and agricultural laborers. There are kids who have to use sharp objects or dangerous equipment, others help in building sites where the risk of accidents is high”, says Franco Bettoni, the national president of ANMIL.

In the world, the phenomenon of child work exploitation concerns more than 150 million children. It is a slap in the face of children’s rights. “To work under the age of 16 means having one’s childhood stolen; it jeopardizes health and psychological well-being and does not help one to find a better work later in life. Estimations indicate that a child forced to work prematurely will experience twice as much difficulty as others  in finding a dignified employment once (s)he grows up”, explains Joseph Apples, the president of PAIDOSS.

On Social Networks is increasing also the number of minors who apply for jobs. They work in different sectors, such as catering, crafts, as shop assistants, in mail delivery, but have also heavier jobs such as porters, in construction or in agriculture. Many of them aspire to make pizzas.

The disturbing element, from cultural and sociological points of view, is the trivialization of this phenomenon in the eyes of the public. There is excessive indulgence and lack of awareness among parents with regard to the damages suffered by young workers, as well as lack of communication with their children. Out of a sample of one thousand families in which there are minor workers, 34 percent ignores the fact that the problem affects them directly. Besides, 54 percent justify themselves and consider economic crisis to be a good reason to do what they do.

All in all, it is a social and an educational emergency. For Mele, “school must be the protagonist of children’s process of growth and can become an effective antidote to the exploitation of minors. Teachers must become a solid reference point of development for young people”. And the president of the Commission of inquiry on accidents at work, Camilla Fabbri​, has expressed well this drama in just one sentence​: “The spread of child work confirms the defeat of our society”.

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