Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Toiling children

By Fatemah Farag

We see the thin bodies, the grimy faces and vacant eyes on our streets every day. They wash cars, repair tires and run errands. The papers occasionally carry heart-wrenching and gruesome stories of little girls being beaten in the homes where they serve and little boys being brutally beaten in the workshops where they are employed.

But how big is the phenomenon of child labour in Egypt? "The figures we have are at best outdated," laments Ahmed Abdallah, head of the Al-Jeel Centre for Youth and Social Studies, a non-governmental organisation which has been offering services to child workers for seven years. "The census of 1984 indicated that 1.5 million children worked in Egypt. This is the figure we go by although it is outdated. What happened after that was that the 1988 figures claimed only 1.3 million children worked and those were reduced to half a million in the 1990s. The 1998 figures have yet to be released." The figures he quotes indicate that the child labour force dropped from 10.8 per cent to 2.7 per cent of the national workforce in 10 years, which many economists and demographers find difficult to believe.

Abdallah explains that in the labour force surveys of 1984 and 1988 there were special forms relating to child labour. These were dropped in later censuses. Indications such as school drop-out rates, however, show that child labour is on the rise.

Children working in industry, construction and services only account for 23 per cent of child labour. Seventy-seven per cent of working children are involved in agriculture.

Poverty is named the number one culprit behind the misery of these children's lives. In a joint study prepared by Abdallah and others in the field, it is underlined that, "working children's contribution to the income, budget and the very survival of their poor families (as opposed to the cost of the upbringing of children by their families) is of paramount importance. Findings of sample studies in the field manifest that working children provide an average of one quarter to one third of the income of their families. In extreme cases, of course, they provide the whole family income."

In fact, Ahmed El-Amawi, minister of manpower, has indicated on more than one occasion that the ministry was unable to eradicate child labour because of the dire consequences this would have on families which depended on this income.

Yet the prevalence of high unemployment among adults and the persistence -- and according to many, the expansion -- of the phenomenon of child labour presents an apparent paradox. Perhaps the best answer is provided by Abdallah, who told Al-Ahram Weekly that a high pay for a child was approximately LE30 per week. An adult would take double to triple this amount for the same job.

To restrict the phenomenon, parliament passed the Unified Child Law in 1996 which raised the minimum age for work from 12 to 14. However, children are not allowed insurance until they are 18 years old and there is no minimum wage stipulation or allowances for fringe benefits.

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