Working Children And Occupational Accidents: A Study On SMEs In Turkey

Ankara University
Faculty of Political Sciences

A.Gürhan FİŞEK, Prof
Fişek Instıtute
Science and Action Foundation for Child Labour

Yasemin BALCI, Prof
Eskisehir Osmangazi University
Faculty of Medicine


Though changing with respect to societies and time, children’s involvement in work at very early ages has always been. In spite of the existence of numerous national and international arrangements for the prohibition and/or restriction of employing child labour, the issue still maintains its importance as a serious problem. According to the latest (1999) Child Labour Survey conducted by the Statistics Institute of Turkey, there are 1,635,000 economically active children and adolescents in the age group 14-17. Of all working children and adolescents 61.8% are males and 38.2% are females. The child labour survey of 1994 had established the proportion of economically active children in this age group to be 8.5%. In October 1999, we see this proportion drop to 4.2%. Enactment of 8-year compulsory primary education is the main factor behind this fall. Agriculture is the sector where majority of child workers can be found (57%),followed by industry (22%), trade (10.2%) and services (10.4%) (Turkish Statistical Institute ,1999).Working children in Turkey can be grouped as child workers, apprentices and children working and/or living in the streets. Distinct from child labourers, children working as apprentices can attend vocational training until age 18 and enjoy at least partial social security benefits.

In the light of studies conducted in Turkey, it appears that poverty, unemployment, internal migration and defects in social protection are the leading causes of child labour in Turkey. Working children explain their working status firstly as a contribution to family subsistence and secondly as learning a profession (Fişek,1994-1995) In low income families, sending children to work (male children in particular) to learn a trade through working at an early age is an important instrument in bringing in additional income to the family. Since it is cheaper, child labour is also preferred by employers.

Working children and adolescents constitute a major risk group in terms of their physical, social and psychological development. Occupational accidents constitute the imminent risk that working children face in their working life. According to data provided by the Social Security Institution (SSK), there were 1,319 work related accidents observed among working children under age 14 in the period 1998-2005. In the same period, the number of accidents in which children in the age group 15-19 were involved is 20,820.3 Males suffer from accidents much more than females. Since the SSK data covers only formal (registered) enterprises and reported cases, the actual number of occupational accidents and children involved is probably much higher than the figures above.

It is known that incidence of occupational accidents is higher for child workers than adults (Banco et al,1997; Miller and Kaufman,1998; NIOSH,1998;Runyan et al,2000; Forastieri, 2002). Here, there are risk factors deriving both from working children/adolescents and working environments. Risk factors deriving from child and adolescent workers include lower risk perception, inexperience, lack of training in occupational health/safety and weak concentration as a result of tiredness and sleeplessness(Banco, et al,1997; Runyan and Zakocs,2000; Simoyi et al,2001;White and O’Donnell,2001; Forastieri,2002). In Turkey, industrial enterprises which employ large number of child workers are mainly small and medium size enterprises (SMEs). Common feature of SMEs is shortage of capital outlay and qualified labour. This prepares the ground for using child labour. Studies conducted so far testify that health and safety standards in working environments worsen as enterprise size gets smaller(Taşyürek and Fisek,1995). The following are some reasons for this(Gökbayrak,2003):

  • Failing to spare budget for health and safety measures in the face of financial competition and bottlenecks ;
  • Absence of unions or very low rates of unionisation in small enterprises;
  • Provisions of safety and health legislation which stipulate measures and arrangements for occupational health and safety( workplace doctors, safety and health committees, etc.) only for enterprises employing 50 or more workers;
  • Absence of workplace auto-control mechanisms which play a crucial role in occupational health and safety.

Studies point out that children employed by small enterprises work much longer hours than provided for in legislation and they are also deprived of many legal rights including annual paid leave(Fişek,1996). Both the profile of these enterprises in terms of occupational health and safety and the fact that child labour is observed most commonly at such enterprises make it necessary to address the issue firstly at the level of small enterprises. In fact, the purpose of this study is to assess accidents and risk factors of such accidents in urban small-scale enterprises employing child labour and consequently to develop some policy suggestions.


From small-scale enterprises operating at industrial sites in Ankara and İstanbul, 620 working children and adolescents, enrolled to Apprenticeship Training Centres, were randomly selected as a sample and these children were interviewed using a “semi- structured questionnaire”. The survey is retrospective . The definition of “working children and adolescents” covers those in the age group 13-18. According to legislation in Turkey, the minimum age for admission to employment is 15. However, if the child is 14 and has completed compulsory primary education, he/she may be allowed to undertake light work which does not harm his/her mental, physical and moral development and education. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines “child” as all persons under age 18. Hence, the age category used in this study does not distinguish between children and adolescents as does the Turkish legislation.

Children were asked about socio-demographic characteristics, their employment background, occupational accidents experienced and their consequences. Responses given were classified by the survey team and statistically analyzed. While dealing with “occupational accidents” those incidences which did not lead to any injury were also covered. Even when their outcomes were not injurious, such incidences were important as indications of possible future accidents.


1. Socio-demographic characteristics:
The age distribution of children covered by the survey: Age 16-18 (72.6%, n=450); age 15 and under (27.4%, n=170) (total n=620). The median age is 16. In terms of gender, almost all (97.4%) are males. This situation can be explained by the dominance of “male-jobs” as understood within the framework of traditional values and judgements. Besides, it should also be noted that there are different motives to work for male and female children. While girls work to support family income, boys are concerned with acquiring a trade. The latter explains the prevalence of boys in working life. While 59% of children have their parents as rural migrants, they were born and have been living in these two big cities. The remaining 41% of children are rural migrants themselves accompanying their parents in the process. Looking at the employment status of household heads (mostly fathers) of working children, 71% of children have fathers with regular though low incomes (i.e. public servants, registered workers, etc.) or with small enterprises with varying income. 20 % of children have fathers with low and irregular income (casual workers, painting works, construction workers, etc.). 8.4% of children are without fathers or their fathers are unemployed. All these suggest that child labour is an outcome of poverty and weak social protection which, in turn, derives from meagre urban employment opportunities for families of rural origin.

2. Sectors and Employment Background:
Examining child labour by sector we see that 40% of child workers are employed in the repair sector (repair and maintenance of machinery, tools, devices, etc.) where the risk of work-related accidents is quite high. 37.3% of children are employed in general services (restaurants, hotels, barber shops, etc.). In terms of enterprise size, half (53.5%) of children work in micro enterprises with 5 or less workers where working conditions are poorer. 28% of children work in enterprises employing 6 to 10 workers and the rest are also in small-scale enterprises with risky work environments . The proportion of child workers gets smaller and smaller as enterprise size gets larger.
The duration of employment for working children and adolescents is, on average, in the interval 22.5 ± 16.8 months. 42,1% of children work for a year or shorter, 43.4% for 1-3 years and 14.5% for 3 years or longer. Child workers also have high labour turn-over. Indeed, 37.3% of child workers have changed 1-2 jobs and 26.9% changed 3 or more jobs. This can be taken as an indicator of discontent with working conditions. Those who had not changed their jobs were mostly children who worked for their relatives or acquaintances.

3. Occupational Accidents:
It was found that 37.4% of child and adolescent workers (232 workers) had experienced at least one accident, including minor ones. Table 1 below shows the relevant distribution.

Table.1. Distribution of Workers Injured by Number of Accidents

Number of Accidents Number of Child Workers %
1-2 197 84,9
3 and 3+ 35 15,1
Total 232 100.0

Table.2. Incidence of Occupational Accidents by Age Groups

Incidence of Work Accident Total
Age Group No Yes
15 and under 101 69 170
16-18 287 163 450
Total 388 232 620

Pearson Chi-Square= 1,004 P>0.05

Our analyses suggest that age and sex are not factors that can be associated with the incidence of occupational accident (p> 0.05). A study conducted in Nepal on children working as porters and others not engaged in this job could find no statistically significant relationship between the incidence of accident and age/sex(Doocy et al,2007). Still, according to the findings of our study, working children in the age group 16-18 have higher incidence of work accident than working children in the age group 13-15 (see, Table.2.). This finding appears in other studies as well(Brooks, et al, 1996; Simoyi, et al,2001; Horwitz and McCall,2005). The outcome can be explained by the fact that child workers in higher age groups work longer hours and more intensively, which increases the risk of occupational accident.

An interesting finding of the survey is that the risk of occupational accident is higher among children working in places of their families, relatives or acquaintances. This finding suggests that sending children to work with familiar persons does not guarantee safety per se. Examining occupational accidents by sectors we observe that 53% of all accidents have taken place in the repair sector. This sector is followed by general services (24%). The relationship between the sector of employment and incidence of accident is significant. The findings of the present survey coincide with another survey conducted in Istanbul. According to the latter, the sectors rank as follows in regard to incidence of occupational accidents experienced by child workers: Repair sector (52%), hair dressers (28%) and jewellery workers (19%). This ranking is the same for health risks other than accidents as well(Esin, et al,2005).

Table.3.Distribution of Occupational accidents by sectors

Work accident No work accident Total
Repair 122 126 248
General Services 60 171 231
Other 50 91 141
Total 232 388 620

X2: 27.84, p<0.000

Table 4.Distribution of Occupational Accidents by duration in working life

Duration Work accident No work accident Total
0-12 months 84 177 261
1-3 years 104 165 269
Over 3 years 44 46 90
Total 232 388 620

X2: 8.29, p<0.05

As children’s duration in employment gets longer the incidence of accident rises as well (X2: 8.29, p<0.05). Of 232 children in total who suffered work accidents, 84 have been working for 0-12 months, 104 for 1-3 years and 44 for 3 years or longer. As duration in employment gets longer the risk of facing an accident gets higher while this longer duration in work tempts the child to take risks. Occupational accidents become almost inevitable in cases where working environments are below required standards and arrangements are not made with due consideration of child workers. No statistically meaningful relationship was found between frequency in changing jobs and incidence of accident (p>0.05).

Neither was there any meaningful relationship between the incidence of accidents and such variables as the size of enterprise (p>0.05) and psychological isolation in the workplace (p>0.05). However, the risk of occupational accident did increase as size of workplaces got smaller (Table.5). However, as enterprises covered by the survey were small-scale ones anyway, no significant correlation could be found between enterprise size and incidence of accident. Indeed, all enterprises in the survey displayed very similar features.

Table.5. Occupational Accidents by Enterprise Size

Size Incidence of accident Total
No Yes
0-5 215 117 332
6-10 109 65 174
11-20 45 36 81
21 and over 19 14 33
Total 388 232 620

Pearson Chi-Square=2,733, P=0,435 .

Examining times of accidents, we see 61% of all accidents happened in the afternoon or evening. While 18% of accidents took place in morning, 20% happened at noon. This means as hours worked within a day increased, tiredness and loss of concentration triggered accidents.

Table 6 gives the causes of occupational accidents experienced by children covered in the survey. According to this table, lesions top the list followed by sprains and strains deriving from machinery and tools. These results are not surprising considering that children are employed mainly in repair works and general services. Lesions as the primary cause and form of occupational accidents come to the fore also in other studies(Banco, et al,1997; Miller and Kaufmann,1998; Simoyi, et al,2001).

These findings suggest that tools and equipment used in workplaces are not fit for children and low perception of risk plays an important role in workplace accidents.

Table.6. Occupational Accidents by Causes

Cause Number %
Lesions and scars 91 39,3
Physical damage by machinery and equipment (sprain, strain) 62 26,7
Having alien particles in eye 30 12,9
Burn 15 6,5
Electric shock 14 6,0
Falling 9 3,9
Other (intoxication, hit by a vehicle, etc.) 11 4,7
Total 232 100,0

Table 7 shows the distribution of injuries resulting from accidents. It appears that arms, hands and fingers are especially at risk in occupational accidents. This is the direct result of working in the repair sector where there are relatively more child workers and a higher risk of occupational accidents. As a result of accidents, 24 child workers had enduring damages such as weakened eye-sight, restricted hand and finger use and burns. 28 child workers who experienced work accidents stated that there were also other workers injured during the incidence.

Table. 7 Injuries as a Result of Occupational Accidents

Injury Number %
Arm, hand and finger lesions 167 72,0
Eye lesions 33 14,2
Leg and feet lesions 12 5,2
Head-neck lesions 10 4,3
Other 10 4,3
Total 232 100,0

Table. 8. Distribution of accident victims by days out of work as a result

Days out of work Number %
4 days or longer 33 14.2
3 days or shorter 51 22.0
None 148 63,8
Total 232 100.0

63.8 % of children experiencing accidents kept working without any days off. 22% had to stay out of work after the accident and for 14.2% this was for 4 days or longer. Analyses suggest no significant correlation between days out of work and size of workplace (0-5 and 6 + workers) (Pearson Chi-Square: 0.611, p=0.737)

One of the interesting findings of the study is related to access to first and urgent health aid after accidents and to parental attitudes. While 43.1% of accident victims applied to no health institution, 23.3% used the health kit and 33.6% applied to health institutions such as hospitals, clinics and health centres of private doctors. While accidents in working environments cannot be avoided or prevented, it is even worse that there are serious problems of access to health interventions after accidents which further aggravates the implications of injuries. For example, parents of 32% of children suffering work accidents had no information about the event. What is even more striking is that 30% of children said their parents considered such incidences as “normal.” This is quite disturbing as it shows that not only employers but parents as well are insensitive to such mishaps. 20% of the parents of working children just advised them to “be more careful.” Only one family applied for legal suit. These findings point out to a dangerous state of affairs where occupational accidents as well as the very phenomenon of child labour are considered as a “normal part of life.”

Conclusion and Policy Suggestions

Occupational accidents constitute the priority risk that children face and they are preventable. However, our study indicates that in SMEs where child labour is relatively more common no attention is paid to preventive measures in working environments. Most of these children were employed in the repair sector where working conditions were too dangerous for them at their age, as evidenced by the fact that 37% of all working children interviewed had experienced occupational accident. In the short term, what needs to be done is to focus on enterprises employing child workers and to make working environments less hazardous. It is also important to improve access to safety and health services. In the long run, it is necessary to eliminate child labour totally and refer working children to education. The phenomenon of child labour is not a problem exclusively related to child workers. It is first of all an impediment to raising healthier generations. Furthermore, employment of children during their education lowers the overall educational status of society. Child labour is associated with low technology conditions and a low added-value pattern of production which is detrimental to the competitive position of the country in international markets. Child labour also feeds into the phenomenon of adult unemployment which is particularly on the rise in recent years. As far as employers are concerned, there is unfair competition between enterprises using child labour and others which do not. . Child workers mainly associate with other child workers, which aggravates the risk of polarisation and social exclusion. Inability to have access to opportunities that their educated peers enjoy undermines commitment to social justice and solidarity.

Policies in the field of child labour should be formulated as a two-stage process. In the short term the objective should be to improve the conditions and environments of working children. More specifically, this includes better access to education opportunities, improvement of working environments in terms of health and safety, delivery of health training and services to working children and leisure time activities. The short-term programme objectives should also include the provision of opportunities for modern life as envisaged in human rights instruments.
There is a need to build awareness in the general public, especially in families, about the causes and consequences of child labour and occupational accidents. The findings of our survey show that there is no section of the public that is genuinely sensitive section to this issue and both child labour and occupational accidents are considered “normal”. The second stage should focus on keeping children away from working life as the basic step to be taken in eliminating child labour in longer term. The full elimination of child labour requires the development of social policies geared to reduce with poverty and unemployment and to provide social protection to all.

In Turkey there are model initiatives to prevent child labour and promote the health and safety of children in their working environments. The first (and institutionalised) one of these is the work of the Fişek Institute ( see Accessed 6 July 2007. The objective of the institute is to improve working environments in small workplaces employing child workers. The model aims at ensuring working children’s access to “occupational health and safety services” incorporating the “social” dimension of the issue including, in the first place, protective health services. Efforts in this area are made by organising small workplaces around a common safety-health unit. Other accompanying activities include reaching very small workplaces through mobile units, creation of school health units in Apprenticeship Training Centres and establishment of an “Industrial Health Centre” in the small industrial sites where these activities are carried out.

There is a need to develop social policies that will translate experience gained from these types of model initiatives into nationwide practices. Since health is a fundamental human right of all people regardless of age, all obstacles to the exercise of this right must be eliminated. Finally, it is clear that all these efforts must be supported by a wide basis of action covering the state, social partners, children, their families and experts and non-governmental organisations active in this field.


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