ISTANBUL — ON a ferry traveling across the Bosphorus from the Asian to the European side of the city, several young boys hoisting ornate shoeshine boxes exhort passengers to have their shoes polished. In a room above a newly built wall housing shops and offices, four adolescents hunch over sewing machines, pinning together men's ties.
At a site for car repair shops on the outskirts of the city, 12-year-old Huseyn Ozturk carries a piece of tubing almost as big as he is. Originally from Kars in East Turkey, his parents sent him to Istanbul three years ago to learn a trade.
``I was going to school, but they thought it was better for me to learn how to earn money,'' he says.
Across Turkey, from the cotton fields in Anatolia to the hundreds of small textile factories springing up to meet the growing demands of the country's main export industry, child labor is widespread and generally accepted.
Experts say the practice is not only ingrained, but growing, as families stagger under the burden of trying to make ends meet in a country where the annual inflation rate is 75 percent and the average factory worker takes home about 250,000 TL (Turkish lirn) - $125 - a month.
Fueled by a high population growth rate of 2.4 percent and the increasing number of people migrating from rural areas to the cities in search of better jobs, children are becoming more important as economic providers.
``I am afraid this could soon become the biggest problem facing Turkey. We must really resolve it before it gets out of control,'' says Esin Konanc, a professor specializing in child labor at Ankara University.
According to official statistics, 17 percent of the country's labor force is between the ages of 12 and 19, but only about 800,000 of the 2.5 million working children are legally employed.
And although children are not allowed to work full time until they have finished elementary school, an overcrowded school system and lax enforcement of laws allows many to end up hawking goods in the street or doing so-called black factory work.
CHILD labor experts say if the practice continues to grow unchecked, in a decade Turkey will be faced with millions of poorly trained, poorly educated workers who are unable to compete effectively in the European market.
``If we don't train these kids now, then they will never learn about the new technologies and methods being used in basic industries. As a result, 10 years from now we will really suffer economically and everybody will laugh at us about our dreams for membership in the European Community,'' says Ali Kansu, director of a private vocational training program for children in Istanbul.
Government officials have scheduled a conference in May to establish a nationwide policy on children, and experts are now drawing up a series of proposals designed to address the needs of child laborers.
Proposals center on better enforcement of existing laws protecting working children, along with increased funding to expand the number of vocational training centers for children who have finished elementary school.
Under the current law, working children are required to enroll in an apprenticeship program, but lack of adequate funding has left more than 80 percent of legally employed children unable to find space in a center, Mr. Konanc says.
Other laws mandating medical examinations, health and safety standards, and the number of hours a day children are permitted to work are routinely ignored, according to a study Konanc conducted in three major cities.
Experts say emphasis must be placed on getting children off the streets and out of illegal factory work, where they usually receive better wages but work long hours in unsafe conditions and do not qualify for health insurance or vocational training.
They also want to see the relevent laws expanded to include children who work in the agricultural sector. About half of Turkey's 55 million people live in rural areas, and children of all ages there routinely work full days with no health insurance or other protection, Konanc says.
There are also calls for an increase in the adult minimum wage - now set at about 140,000 TL ($70) a month - in the hope this could reduce families' dependence on extra wages from their children.
But raising the minimum wage could actually hurt adult employment unless backed up by strict enforcement of laws regulating child labor. While Turkey's adult unemployment rate is about 15 percent, children - low-paid and not allowed to join unions - can usually find jobs where adults fail, Konanc says.
Government officials have said they may soon ratify the International Labor Organization's convention setting the basic minimum working age at 14, but experts say unless economic pressures diminish, such a move will have little effect on the number of working children.
``Short of radical economic changes, there is no way that we can do away with the practice of children working. What we must do in the short run is accept that children have to work and we must figure out how we can help protect them from being exploited,'' says Konanc.