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Monday, 22 February, 1999, 18:42 GMT
Heavy loads on narrow shoulders
Alessandro is twelve, and works full-time on his stall in the market

By Carlo de Blasio

The usual image of child labour is one of destitute families sending their children to factories in developing countries. But in Palermo, Crossing Continents has uncovered widespread use of child labour in Sicily - which as a region of Italy is part of the European Union.

Our reporting on child labour made the front page of the Giornale di Sicilia
Why, then, in a European country, are children still moonlighting from school and being exploited for miserable wages because their families are desperate for additional income? Generally speaking, the situation is different from that in countries like India or Mexico, where several children go to work at a young age and the system of exploitation is organized and established.

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Child labour in Sicily is informal and scattered - but still exploits kids like these
In Sicily it's hard to find concentrated evidence of the problem (for instance, a factory with scores of working children). Nonetheless, there are very numerous, scattered cases of individual children working: one in a bar, another in a shop, one at the market, another in manufacturing, and so on). But recently there have been signs of a notable change of heart in the Sicilian community. Many individuals are now beginning to realize how crucial it is to stop children going to work, or at least to keep them studying while they work.

In 'ludoteche', children are encouraged to mix play with learning
Now the media and the institutions (public and religious) are launching campaigns and intiatives to get the children out of the shops or markets, and back in the schools and "ludoteches". The ludoteches are a daring and innovative project, with safe spaces for children to play and learn simultaneously. It's been labelled "edutainment", a new blend of entertainment and education.

Although Italy as a whole has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, Sicily is the only region where the old tradition of big families still holds. At the same time, notoriously, Sicily is home to the Mafia and a pervasive culture of criminality.

A mural illustrates the new regard for children as tomorrow's citizens
So the issue of children going to school and receiving a proper education is fundamental in laying the basis for a real fight against the Mafia, social decay and criminality. The Mafia, campaigners argue, is a culture (the culture of dishonesty) and can only be won by a sound counter-culture (the culture of honesty). And the only way to instill the new culture is by making sure the children grow up in a cultivated and educated environment.

The need for a change in culture is even more urgent in a place where children are still a high percentage of the population, for the very reason that a change in attitude among them will result sooner in a change of attitude in the future society.

In a significant move, the most influential Sicilian newspaper, "Il Giornale di Sicilia" recently launched a campaign to raise the public's awareness of the perennial problem of child labour. It all started in October, with the publication of a letter sent to the daily by two 10-year-old girls of the primary School "Nuccio".

Francesca Giannotta and Agnese Colajanni's letter marked a change of attitude
The letter, written by Agnese and Francesca, is about an 8-year-old friend they noticed one morning while walking through the local market on their way to school: instead of going to school as well, the boy was working at the market selling salt. The newspaper published the letter to illustrate the changing attitudes among families, institutions and even children themselves.

Even more revealing of that shift in attitude is the fact that the girls' primary school is located in the poor and unemployment-ridden "Albergheria" area. These young girls weren't natural allies of the state, or goody two-shoes children of the privileged. But the message that child labour was a menace had trickled down even to them.

Ballaro market bustles - but some of its stallholders are children
In Palermo's noisy, flamboyant and raucous Ballaro market, we talked with Alessandro, a 12-year old boy who minds a stall every day, selling fruit and vegetables. For Alessandro to be working like that at 12 is illegal in Italy, just as it would be in Britain and in many other countries. But no one in the market place seems remotely bothered.

After all, ranked up against the drug smuggling, the robberies or the protection rackets round here, a few kids skipping school to work is no big deal. In fact, labour unions believe more than 15 per cent of Sicilian children are working underage. Talking with us, between dealing with his customers and shouting out his wares, Allesandro confirmed that children like him need to work to help their extremely poor families.

Camillo, from the poor Borgo Vecchio district, started work at 13
The Borgo Vecchio, in the centre of Palermo, is the kind of place guidebooks tell you not to go to. The streets are cluttered with washing lines, tyres, bits of washing machines and broken crates. Here we meet Camillo, another boy who went out to work at 13. He's now 16 and he's working - quite legally - in a shoe factory just round the corner. "My mum is unemployed and there's three kids at home. My dad is in prison, so it's my duty to help my mum", Camillo told us. Still, we had to meet in a side street rather than at the factory - his boss didn't want us to see the other underage workers.

"Le Ali della Liberta'" (The Wings of Freedom) is one of the growing number of associations which tries to help children who have social problems and to promote the pursuit of education. Realising the extreme economic pressure many Sicilian families are under, they don't condemn young labour outright; they say that many families in Sicily are too large and too poor and to manage without the extra income. But they do insist that young workers devote their spare time to improve themselves. So they work with employers and young employees, trying to make room for schooling and to protect the employees' interests.

Alfonsa Cottone, an energetic member of Wings of Freedom, is a young city lawyer in a black trouser suit who looks as if she should be sitting in one of the smart air-conditioned restaurants uptown. Instead, she chooses to spend much of her spare time here in the Borgo Vecchio, getting to know boys like Camillo and their families. "It is easier for the children to keep in touch with us," she says, "because ours is a relationship based purely on affection; we don't represent anyone, we're not part of the state. I really believe in a change of mentality among the kids. We've seen kids who lived in the street, who were involved in drug traffic or something like that, and we've seen those same kids going to shcool and getting their diploma. I just believe in miracles among the kids."

WEB EXCLUSIVES: Alfonsa Cottone of Ali di Liberta
on why kids go out to work, and how she's "seen miracles"
Laura Anello of newspaper Il Giornale di Sicilia:
"Sicilian mentality is changing"...
See also:

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30 May 98 | Europe
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