23 -29 May 2002
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'No time for fun'This month's International Labour Organisation's (ILO) first global report on child labour uncovers the heart-breaking conditions in which millions of child-labourers still toil. Gihan Shahine investigates
Just because I'm a street girl nobody cares
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I beseech you be merciful to street children
And come to their aid.
They need food, clothing and education,
But most of all they need love. Children are the pride of Africa
-- Anne, a working street child in Kenya
Egypt's eleven-year old Gomaa shares similar, albeit unspoken, sentiments. For two years now, Gomaa has been working in a downtown car repair shop where he has been forced to forfeit his rights to an education and a normal childhood in order to support his family. When he wakes up in the early morning it is not to catch the school bus like other children but to throw on a tattered overall and run to the shop. Once there, Gomaa spends at least ten hours a day slipping under cars, inhaling exhaust fumes and slathering himself in lubricant for a mere LE20 ($5) a week. Does he play on weekends? "No time for fun," he sighs.
Mention school to Gomaa and chances are the word will bring tears to his eyes. After completing the elementary level, Gomaa's father forced him to drop out so that he could contribute to the meagre household income.
Gomaa would "love to go back to school" but it is no longer possible, given that regulations bar a student from re-admittance after he has dropped out.
"I was good at school, I was so good," Gomaa sobs. "But my father thought I'd better work since I was not learning anything at school. My father is a fruit-seller but he is getting increasingly ill and always in debt. He spits blood and yet continues to smoke heavily."
Goma'a has six sisters and brothers, and must work to help out with the expenses. But a big part of his contribution goes up in smoke in the shape of his father's tobacco expenses. Still, Goma'a puts the blame for dropping out of school on the educational system over his family's economic hardship. Goma'a hardly reads or writes, something which he blames his teachers for.
"The teachers hardly explained anything at school and would force us to take private lessons to let us pass," he laments. "Students who refused to do this faced failure and discrimination in the classroom. And my father couldn't take the expenses anymore."
For 10-year-old Amina, however, toiling in a tannery -- an extremely hazardous activity legally prohibited for children under 18 -- is the thin line between survival and starvation. Amina was forced into the role of supporting her single mother and baby sister after her father abandoned them. "My work is so hard, I have constant backaches and injuries in my hand," Amina complains helplessly. She grabs my hand as if to underline her dire need for help. "I'm tired of work."
The likes of Anne, Goma'a and Amina have been the driving force behind the launch of the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) first global report on child labour. Suzanne Mubarak spearheaded the launch on behalf of the Arab world in Egypt on 5 May. The report was simultaneously presented in 13 regions the next day.
"A future without child labour" is the report's name and aim. It constitutes a major part of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The message the report seeks to drive home is direct and to the point: "Despite the increasing commitment and efforts being made by governments, social partners and civil society in the bid to tackle child labour, the problem remains on an increasingly massive scale."
According to ILO estimates, some 246 million children aged 5-17 years are engaged in child labour around the world. Of these, roughly 180 million children are engaged in the worst forms of hazardous child labour, while two thirds are under 15 years old. That is, one in every eight children in the world is working full time in a hazardous and exploitative environment. And yet, the report warns, the aforementioned figures may still not provide a full picture of the burgeoning phenomenon.
Egypt is no exception. Disappointingly, not a single official figure is revealed on the number of working children in Egypt, while less developed countries such as Bangladesh have already taken the initiative.
"We just don't have any statistics on child labour in Egypt," Ambassador Mushira Khattab, secretary- general of the National Council on Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), told Al-Ahram Weekly. "But we have recently launched a survey," she quickly adds. The survey is conducted in cooperation with the Central Authority for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS).
"Counting child labourers is a daunting, nearly impossible task," conceded Amr Taha, head of the ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) in Egypt. "Even the estimates reported to the ILO by other countries are mostly fake." The main reason for this is that child labour is closely associated with the kind of unregulated informal economy that is largely beyond the reach of formal institutions and labour inspection services. In addition, child labour is also a highly sensitive issue that governments have long ignored, declined to address or obstructed others from tackling.
Unofficial estimates are indicative. Adel Azer, a social policy expert with UNICEF, suggests that child labour stands at an estimated 1.5 to 2 million children -- 25 per cent of them work on summer vacation only. Other estimates, however, soar up to an estimated 6 million working children nationwide.
"Numbers don't really count as long as we know that the figures for child labourers are in the several millions mark," Taha argued. "What matters is that child labour is definitely on the increase."
Reasons vary: "Poverty offers neither a straightforward nor a complete explanation for child labour. Inadequate social protection and poor quality educational systems are key factors in the perpetuation of child labour," the report said.
"The economic recession, however, is the main reason why more children are working," Taha maintained. National economies that are recession- stricken suffer from high unemployment rates, low family incomes and grinding poverty. Low and unstable wages, besides perpetuating the absence of a comprehensive insurance system, force children to fill in the gap. The NCCM study corroborates Taha's point and reveals that a working child's revenue in Egypt makes up 29 per cent of his family's income.
"It's a vicious circle," Taha proceeded. "Low paid and unemployed parents tend to send their children out for employment, who, in turn, leave little space for adults to find a job." Experts suggest that children aged between 12 and 14 constitute almost half of all paid labour. Child labour also perpetuates poverty as working children tend to remain poor and at the bottom of the employment charts as they are mostly unskilled and low-paid. Failings in the educational system have also served as a catalyst in driving more children out of school and into paying jobs.
"There is definitely no place in the world where a standardised curriculum fits all, as is the case in Egypt," Taha noted. "Family economy aside, many children also leave school when they fail: such cases should be investigated and a vocational alternative instituted in order that they can, at least, end up as one form or another of qualified labour."
Unscrupulous employers, of course, welcome the prospect of child labourers as it provides them with cheap, flexible and deft labourers. But, in some cases, employers also feel a social obligation to offer income-generating opportunities to the children of poor families. "Mothers come crying asking me to employ their children," a mechanic explained to the Weekly. "They swear they are starving and I just can't turn them down."
But it is also a matter of culture and awareness. Ask Nabil El-Sabban, the man in charge of the IPEC-funded programme with Abul-Seoud's non- governmental organisation for community development in Misr Al-Qadima. "For many, a child is a golden goose who generates income for the family," El-Sabban asserted. "And poor people have many children for this reason." Do'aa, 13, nods her approval. "My father wakes me up at seven to work while himself and my mother rest at home," she scoffed. Is her father happy that she is taking literacy classes? "He beats me up to discourage me from stopping work," she snaps back. "But I slip behind his back to attend the classes. I dream of learning and becoming a teacher."
The ILO report suggests that the government's role is crucial in realising the dreams of children like Do'aa through instituting poverty alleviation programmes, investing in social protection, social services and educational schemes and supporting targeted programmes to eliminate child labour.
To date, Egypt does not have a comprehensive time-bound national programme for eliminating child labour. "The good news, however, is that child labour is claiming more column inches, entering public awareness and gaining more widespread attention as the government embarks on economic, educational and health reform programmes. Working children will definitely be taken into account," Taha told the Weekly. Also, issues which were once considered too sensitive for acknowledgement -- such as child exploitation -- are now increasingly the subject of public debate and the government is showing an increased willingness to survey and address the phenomenon. This is particularly evident in the slew of new legislative reforms and child-friendly policies that have emerged in the recent past.
Egypt has ratified convention number 138 of 1973 on the minimum age for employment. Recently, the parliament also approved the ratification of convention number 182 of 1999 that aims at eliminating the worst forms of child labour -- slavery, forced or unpaid labour, human trafficking, child pornography, prostitution and other forms of hazardous and exploitative work.
Although officials insist that Egypt is largely void of the worst forms of child labour described by the convention, it is clear that many working children are beaten, underpaid, overworked and sexually abused. The convention also encompasses work that is considered harmful to children's health, safety and morals or exposes them to physical psychological or sexual abuse.
The convention makes clear that child labour does not encompass all jobs performed by under-age children outside the house and does not encompass those children who help their families around the house in ways that are neither harmful nor exploitative but teach them to take responsibility, acquire skills and contribute to the national economy in indirect ways. What should be abolished, though, is all work that is at odds with children's well-being, their basic right to an education and as carefree a childhood as is possible.
The report also highlights some apparently harmless activities that, in fact, may be damaging to children. A case in point can be found in the agricultural sector which involves about 80 per cent of Egypt's child labourers. Children involved in agricultural activities may be subject to such hazardous activities as the handling of poisonous chemicals, the use of inappropriate or dangerous equipment and long hours spent in unhealthy working environments.
Children are normally more vulnerable to occupational hazards than adults. Exposure to dust, chemicals and other substances, as well as physical strain at an early stage -- when the body is still undeveloped -- can cause irreversible damage. Chronic physical strain on growing bones and joints leads to stunting, spinal injuries and other lifelong deformities, according to the report.
Roughly a quarter of all children working in construction are exposed to illness and injury (34 per cent for girls), 15.9 per cent in mining and quarrying (20.8 per cent for girls) and 12.2 per cent in agriculture (15.5 per cent for girls), the report warns. Rates of work-related child worker deaths during the 1992-98 period in the US were highest in agriculture, forestry and fishing, followed by retail trade and construction, the report added.
"Even the simplest chores, like handing a razor blade to a barber, can be catastrophic for children. They can easily cut their fingers, leading to HIV/ AIDS and Hepatitis C infections," Taha cautioned.
But, until now, legislation has failed to take children out of labour -- laws are sparsely enforced in the absence of an efficient inspection system. Azer vehemently suggests that, for the law to be enforced, "an economic alternative should be found for the children's family." This is already a part of the NCCR comprehensive plan for the elimination of child labour, a project that is still in the preparatory stage. That, Khattab said, "will be paralleled with awareness campaigns on the dangers of child labour and the importance of education in combating poverty."
Egypt's national target is now clear: "Although our ultimate goal is to eliminate child labour altogether, our efforts in the coming period will focus on eliminating the worst forms of child labour," Mrs Mubarak said at the ILO report's launch.
For now, though, working children can seek some respite in NGOs like Abul-Seoud's, where literacy classes, vocational training, medical and recreational services and food are provided to working children on weekends as part of the ILO's IPEC programme. "Children have tremendously changed since first coming here -- now they read and write and their attitude has significantly improved," El-Sabban boasted.
"Here we enjoy our time a lot; we learn, play and eat," Shaaban, a 10-year-old mechanic, enthused as he munched on his chips. But what is that bruise on Shaaban's eye? "My boss hit me with a hose," he says. Clearly, a lot of work is still to be done.
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