Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 July 2008
Issue No. 905
Features
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Picking on cotton

A combination of complex social factors drives peasant parents to force their own progeny into labouring in the cotton fields under harsh conditions removing the bollworm. But do the hapless children have any alternative? Egyptian officials suggest matters cannot change overnight. Gamal Nkrumah sounds out those concerned

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Children of landless peasants working the fields under the scorching sun

It is this time of the year again: the bollworm-removing season. This particular season coincides with the release of a report by the United Nations on the state of Africa's children -- including child labour and attendant problems. The damning recently released United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) report put Egypt in the spotlight. The UNICEF report was issued on 28 May at the Fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development. Even though the report acknowledged that Egypt and other North African countries have witnessed lower child mortality rates and are more likely to meet the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDG) than African countries south of the Sahara, persistent problems endure. The comprehensive report severely criticises the utilisation of children as labourers in the fields working for a pittance and often without wages whatsoever. Technically, many of the children work for their parents and as such their work is not considered "slave labour". They do, however, have to forgo school altogether.

The UNICEF report was not the only critical report that was released recently. On 24 June, the United States Department of Labour's Bureau of International Labour Affairs also released a report in which Egypt came under fire for its alleged exploitation of child labour. Meanwhile, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) designated 12 June as World Day Against Child Labour. The ILO has in the past five years issued many statements and conducted extensive studies on child labour in Egypt. UNICEF's Egypt office, which is organising an international conference entitled "Child Poverty and Disparities: Public Policies for Social Justice" scheduled to take place in January 2009.

As another cotton planting and bollworm-picking season beckons, world attention turns to the contentious issue of child labour in contemporary Egypt. A concerted attack on the handling of child labour in Egypt by the Western media followed the release of these reports. The deluge of criticism has unleashed a wave of resentment among Egyptian officials and academics.

"There is a direct correlation between education and poverty reduction because child labour is directly linked to parental illiteracy," Chairwoman of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) Mushira Khattab told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"The question of child labour is inextricably intertwined with the tendency among the peasants to have large families. In other words, it is a problem of demographics resulting from specific traditional cultural perceptions. The rationale is that larger families and more children ensure that the parents are better cared for in their old age," Khattab explained.

"There is a misconception that child labour alleviates poverty. The parents take the arbitrary decision that a child must drop from school. Schooling, although theoretically free in Egypt, is expensive for low income families. Textbooks, uniforms and other necessary accessories are not free. The parents very often realise that they cannot afford to have more than one or two children in school. They should stop at the second child. Instead they pull them out of the school and into the fields. This is especially prevalent in rural areas." But child labour is by no means a problem confined to rural backwaters, the NCCM head stressed.

Parents, Khattab indicated, did not always realise that they are committing a crime, not just in the sense of an offence, but also in contravening Egyptian and international law. "The tradition will not go overnight as long as there is widespread poverty and illiteracy," she noted. "The lack of awareness is responsible for the perpetuation of the problem."

Khattab argues that some form of monitoring mechanism should be institutionalised. She conceded that she was not happy with the level of implementation, and that neither the NCCM nor human rights groups are always taken seriously. "The empowerment of civil society is a key factor in eliminating child labour."

Khattab suggested that a national strategy to combat child labour be devised and that a plan of action be drawn out. A national survey was designed to assess the magnitude of the problem of child labour in Egypt. Coordination between various ministries such as the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Health and cash transfer incentives should be allocated to impoverished and needy families.

"A denial of the problem is part of the problem and not a solution. There is a tendency not to speak openly about the problem," Khattab pointed out.

On 25 June, a conference on child labour was held by the NCCM in conjunction with the World Bank and the Japanese Social Fund. "Issues such as the economic cost of child labour were examined," Khattab stated. "Five governorates including Giza, Fayoum, Damietta, Sharqiya and Qalioubiya, which is both rural and urban, have some of the worst forms and incidences of child labour in the country."

Khattab stressed that the NCCM tries to draw the attention of Egyptian society at large to the economic and social costs of child labour. "There is a conspiracy by the parents, schools and unscrupulous employers. The prevailing culture, through spreading fallacies, justifies and enhances the commercial exploitation of children in the labour market."

She suggested that it is the task of the NCCM in conjunction with the media to draw the attention of society to the rights of children: the right to education, good health, and not to be subjected to exploitation or ill-treatment. She also noted that advocacy was an ideal means of advancing children's rights.

Part of a broader outpouring of fury is felt in many Western countries over the employment of children in the developing countries of the South. The UNICEF report does not focus exclusively on child labourers working the cotton fields. Instead, it outlines the whole problem of child labour, and especially unpaid work.

The typical child labourers are sons and daughters of the poorest and invariably illiterate villagers who do not have much faith in the educational system. The child labourers in the rural areas face similar problems to urban street children, except it is argued by some activists that their situation is marginally better since they do theoretically have families and are not as subject to the allure of narcotics as urban street children often are. These arguments, however, do not detract from the fact that child labourers in rural backwaters lead a miserable life.

Moreover, those narrowly defined as child labourers have surprisingly little in common. To break the monotony of tedious work, children often sing and chatter as they pluck the bollworms or pick jasmine flowers at dusk, but sadly their high-pitched voices do not elicit the sympathy of seemingly tone-deaf bureaucracies.

What is widely perceived as a Western defamation campaign was not seen as an isolated venting of anti-Arab spleen. "I do not particularly care what they write. I am looking for solutions, for the root causes of the problems in order to work out viable solutions," Khattab remarked.

Long staple Egyptian cotton has become a symbol of quality production internationally. India, and other cotton producers, are now exporting high-quality "Egyptian" cotton. Removing the bollworm is a task reserved almost exclusively for children with nimble hands. The arduous and tedious task is a thankless one. The back-breaking job entails working long hours. The government of Egypt launched a national plan against child labour in 1995. Under this plan, income- generating activities designed to assist impoverished families were devised, and training programmes for government officials and labour inspectors on child labour issues follow up on the progress. As far back as Education Law 139/1981, which was intended to enforce compulsory primary education, successive Egyptian governments have attempted to eradicate the phenomenon of child labour. Unfortunately, most of these laws were not enforced, and millions of children missed out on educational opportunities.

Khattab stressed that the most conspicuous problem for the child labourers is the lack of education. She also said that certain health problems are associated with child labour. Some of these problems have lasting effects and some children are maimed for life. The resolution of the child labourer is not a straight forward economic decision. According to many experts, the child labourers themselves understand the financial burden they represent to their families.

UNICEF reports touches upon this subject, but it also highlights the fact that the physical development of child labourers is stunted because of working long hours and intricate work. Their eyesight is often adversely affected and certain jobs, including picking cotton and removing bollworms, lead to physical deformities. The children get cramps crouching for long hours in the cotton fields. The children suffer from a wide range of diseases not only due to long hours of working in the fields, but also because of contamination with deadly agro-chemicals and pesticides. Moreover, many of these children are effectively bonded labourers.

The NCCM launched several studies on the causes and ramifications of child labour with the Central Authority for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS). Both the NCCM and CAPMAS have sustained intensive research and documentation of the problem of child labour, and the NCCM, in particular, has designated the eradication of child labour as one of its top priorities.

Endemic child labour is a serious problem in both urban but especially rural Egypt in spite of the Egyptian child law of 1996 that bans the employment of children under the age of 14. Mrs Suzanne Mubarak launched the International Labour "Red Card to Child Labour" campaign during the African Football Cup of Nations which Egypt hosted in 2006, a good example of the concerted efforts by the state to alleviate the indignities suffered by child labourers. "When I have Mrs Mubarak on board spearheading the fight against child labour then I am taken more seriously by the public and I feel more confident," Khattab conceded.

The cotton industry is still one of the most important industries in contemporary Egypt. The country is the world's tenth largest cotton producer. The wealth generated from the growing of cotton, however, does not benefit the most vulnerable workers -- the children who work in the cotton fields. Farm labour earnings, as most studies conclude, are pitifully low. Dividends don't benefit those who till the land and pick the cotton.

Not only do landless peasants earn a pittance working the land, but they are subjected to abuse, and no group more so than the children, the most vulnerable members of society. Foremen in the fields subject the children to violent beatings. Gangmasters recruit the children, invariably the offspring of landless peasants and impoverished peasant families. The parents of the child labourers are desperately poor and are often all too relieved to part with their children. In the final analysis, farming out one's children as indentured labourers mean fewer mouths to feed.

Peasants pay landowners high rents for the right to work the fields. The gains made by landless peasants in the aftermath of the sweeping land reforms that followed the July 1952 Revolution were eroded when the late President Anwar El-Sadat first curtailed and then abolished the land reforms initiated by the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and which were in favour of landless peasants. Before the revolution rents averaged 75 per cent of the income of landowners. Today, the situation is approximating pre-revolution conditions in this respect. The cumulative effect of the population explosion and the indebtedness of landless peasants accentuates the quandary of child labourers in rural backwaters.

Furthermore, the introduction and increased use of artificial fertilisers has led to widespread chemical pollution. The traditional rich river silt deposited annually during the late summer Nile inundation was full of nutrients. The granular material that swept down from the Ethiopian Highlands was not harmful to peasants, on the contrary it enriched the soil in a natural process. Today, chemical pollution constitutes a health hazard to children and adults working the land. Moreover, the countryside is increasingly associated with outdated, inappropriate and decrepit irrigation systems and the rapid depletion of the Nile waters. The worst aspect of the current situation is the fast spreading water-borne diseases which constitute a mortal danger to child labourers.

However, agriculture remains an important sector of the Egyptian economy, employing millions of people. The export of high quality cotton has for long been the mainstay of the Egyptian economy, even though today tourism revenues, proceeds from Suez Canal tolls and remittances from Egyptians abroad far supersede foreign currency earnings from the export of cotton. Egyptians themselves don cheaper imported cotton and synthetic clothes and the high quality long-staple cotton is exported abroad.

However, cotton exports are fast dwindling even though Egypt still exports some $300 million worth of high quality cotton. Despite the general sharp rise in agricultural prices, cotton prices plummeted because of "oversupply". The US provides generous subsidies to its cotton farmers and this is regarded as one of the main reasons for the ruin of the Egyptian cotton industry and why landless peasants and poor cotton farmers are forced to employ their children and have them work in the cotton fields at such a tender age.

Islam is an eight-year-old farm labourer, his hands callused and worn, knows that he is unhappy working for long hours in the cotton fields in torrid heat and under very difficult physical and psychological conditions. Research indicates that children such as Islam work on average 10-hour shifts in 40 C heat for a pittance, which is tantamount to slave labour. Children complain of breathing difficulties and indeed many suffer serious respiratory illnesses.

"Removing the bollworm means handling plants coated in pesticides which is extremely detrimental to the health of the children," sociologist Soheir Morsy explains. She warned that the magnitude of the problem is tremendous. One million children are hired for the cotton harvest later in the year, but at least 500,000 are also hired for the bollworm- removing season.

According to UNICEF some 2.8 million children work in Egypt under inhumane circumstances. In addition to the bollworm-removing season and the harvest, there is post-harvest work. Cottonseed oil is used for the manufacture of cooking oil and margarine.

Fibre and seed are important byproducts. The seed is crushed to produce edible oil, meal and hulls which in turn are used as livestock feed and fertiliser. This also involves child labour.

As for the coverage of the local press, which is crucial to broadcasting the crisis, its sanguinity beggars belief. The local press hardly mentions the problem of child labour, even as the crisis has hit international media headlines. If the Egyptian public has a problem with the British papers' treatment of this prickly subject it is that the Western pundits approach it as presumptuous social historians rather than political commentators.

British papers such as The Guardian, The Independent and The Telegraph quickly picked up on the theme. There are those who argue that child workers are not so much a stain on Egypt's and other developing countries' image, as a legacy of Western colonialism and neo-colonialism. "The British invented indentured labour in India and trans- Atlantic slavery was a Western social phenomenon. In modern times, however, Westerners have taken the moral high ground and many officials in the developing world, the former colonies, resent the interference and lack of understanding by what they see as 'gullible foreigners'," Morsy complains. She is deeply resentful of such lack of clarity among Western experts. "Instead of highlighting the phenomenon, these reports should focus on means of eradicating the problem of poverty. Issues such as subsidies by wealthy Western nations to their cotton producers could go a long way to alleviating the suffering of child workers and help prevent child labour," Morsy contends.

The sad truth is that child labour goes hand in hand with callous indifference to the fate of the children themselves. And, the social gulf it represents is bottomless.

"Child labour, and the problems associated with this persistent problem, is an inalienable human right," Morsy points out. Nevertheless, she concedes that much will stay the same for the foreseeable future. But why? That indeed is a pertinent question. "This is a question of socio-economic development, and the world trade and economic system which is heavily biased against the poor and the disadvantaged," she explains.

All these good intentions would be welcome changes of substance and symbolism. A humanitarian calamity? "Yes, but we should examine the root causes, not simply look at the painful symptoms," Morsy summed up. Western criticism of labour laws in the developing countries of the South is unacceptable, she concluded. It often amounted to not listening to the other side of the story at all. These concerted attacks from the UN and Western media look like part of a propaganda war and devise ingenious proposals that sound fair but are designed to be inadmissible to the public in poor countries. It is not time for the boycott of Egyptian cotton yet, that would only make matters worse.

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