Irish Examiner view: A social issue we ignore at our peril

Irish Examiner view: A social issue we ignore at our peril

In a country and a world convulsed by the coronavirus pandemic, it is easy for other less immediately pressing, but nonetheless significant, social issues to slip under the radar.

We should not — and must not — let that happen.

A prime example is the findings of a European social affairs watchdog investigation which has raised concerns about the number of young people and children working in Ireland.

The European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) noted that children under the age of 15 are being asked to do too much work and that wages paid to 16 to 18-year-olds is too low in comparison to wages paid to adults for the same tasks.

The finding were made under the rules of the European Social Charter, a Council of Europe treaty that guarantees fundamental social and economic rights as a counterpart to the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees civil rights.

Ireland ratified the charter at the turn of the millennium but, 20 years on, we are continuing to flout it in a wholesale manner. The ECSR investigation has found that Ireland has not conformed in 13 instances.

On Tuesday the committee published 896 conclusions in respect of 37 European countries. It noted a growing concern over the continuing use of child labour as well as failure to protect children from violence, abuse and exploitation.

Investigators also found the age of criminal responsibility as too low in Ireland, the UK and Turkey and migrant rights were found to be problematic in almost every country, including Ireland.

The committee concluded that wages paid to young workers are too low here and it also notes that this country is breaking the rules of the charter by excluding young people working for close relatives from protective minimum wage legislation.

One of the most notable and worrying points made by the ECSR concerns the widespread assumption in Ireland that all incidents of clerical abuse of children have been identified and dealt with.

It notes the findings of the UN special rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children who noted gaps in the recording practices and information shared between the National Board of Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland and An Garda Síochána.

The committee wants to know what measures have been taken to strengthen protection from sexual abuse in this context.

It’s a hard question but also an essential one, particularly if it reveals that we have not yet learned fully the lessons of decades of clerical abuse of children.

There are other ways in which we continue to mistreat children, according to the findings.

These include lack of affordable childcare facilities and inadequate housing for vulnerable families.

It also says that the age of criminal responsibility in Ireland should be raised from the current 12 to at least 14.

These are all important matters that, unless they are addressed, will remain long after the Coronavirus crisis has ended.

If a society is best judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members, then we must not continue to be found wanting.

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