Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Battling child labour

Poverty is forcing more and more children into work in Egypt, at the expense of their physical and mental health, writes Rawan Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

Sabrine is 12 years old. She dreams about the ordinary necessities of life, things that every child should have. “I want to have a house with a fridge and a lot of food. I want to go to school and play in the playground and have pretty clothes rather than these rags,” Sabine says.

As she spoke about her wants and needs, she said of her father, “If he was a king he would be a tyrant. He even wants me to go out to work so he can spend what I earn on himself.” Her life is anything but comfortable, as Sabrine sleeps on a cold floor and shares a room with her five siblings and father. The family lives in a house without running water, electricity or sewerage.

But Sabrine is a hard worker who refuses to take the easy way out. She works as a maid in homes in Cairo — the fate of many unfortunate children. She has not had a regular childhood. Sabine has never played like normal children, or even had a chance to rebel against her parents.

 She says the families she works for treat her well most of the time, and buy her new clothes and give her good food. But this is not always the case. Says Sabrine, “Sometimes I am not allowed to rest until they are all sleeping, and then I have to wake up early to clean while their children are having fun.”

She’s responsible for all the household chores, from mopping, to cleaning, to cooking, to taking care of kids younger than herself.

Karim, a 13-year-old boy, does not fare any better. Crouching on the ground, mixing cement and water with his bare hands, his dirty clothes and rough hands are evidence of his work. When he has finished the mixing, he takes the cement plate to one of the older men on the site by climbing up two floors without any protection.

“I don’t like working here, and the hot sun makes it worse,” Karim says. “I get very thirsty.” Poverty forced Karim to drop out of school in the fourth grade in order to help his father in construction. Despite the hard working conditions, and 13 hours of work each day, he earns just LE65 a week, LE15 for himself and the rest for his father.

 “My job is difficult, but this is the only place where the owner does not beat me up, unlike other jobs I have worked in,” Karim says.

Karim has to work because his parents believe education is useless. “What will education do for him? He was in school for three years and learned nothing,” says his mother, who refused to give her name. “I failed at school, but at times I wish I could read and write,” Karim says in reply.

A growing problem: Karim and Sabrine are not alone. Over the past two decades child labour has increased dramatically in Egypt. According to the Terre des Hommes Foundation, an NGO, there are over two million children aged between five and 15 years old working in Egypt.

Iman Metwalli, a researcher at the foundation, says “the number of children working is more than two million, and it could even be twice that number.”

A 2001 joint study by the Central Authority for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) and the National Council of Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) reported that almost 2.8 million children in Egypt were employed. According to the study, 83 per cent of these were from rural areas.

 According to the 2010 International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), out of Egypt’s 17.1 million children, 10.7 per cent are engaged in work, which represents about 1.8 million children. In addition, there are another 10 per cent who are engaged in “other forms of labour,” meaning that their work is considered to be less dangerous or harmful, even if they are under age.

 “The number is always on the rise in rural areas due to the number of children working in agriculture, which makes it hard to document as there is no specific estimate of the number of these children,” Metwalli says.

 The Terre des Hommes Foundation, which has conducted many studies on child labour, says it was also difficult to estimate the number of girls in domestic service in Egypt. Because there has been no specific study of domestic service, the numbers given are only estimates.

Metwalli believes that even though it is hard to track down the number of children in domestic service, the main problem goes back to the law on child labour. According to Egypt’s 2003 labour law, child labour is defined as all work or services done by a person under the age of 14. Article 80 of the 2014 constitution prohibits any hazardous work being done by children under the age of 18.

 The law defines hazardous conditions as situations that could threaten life or physical and emotional health. But the child labour law excludes domestic service from such hazardous work, even though in 2007 the US Department of Labour identified domestic work as one of the worst forms of child labour in Egypt.

 A study by Terre des Hommes showed that some families prefer to send their children into domestic service in the hope that they will find a better life rather than send them to school. “The truth is that domestic service might be among the harshest working conditions for children,” Metwalli says.

 According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a child is a person who has not yet reached the legal age of maturity. Child labour refers to any work that will or could harm a child, physically or mentally. Therefore, child labour should include any work that deprives children of their innocence, their childhood, their dignity or their education.

 Even though ending child labour in Egypt would be difficult for a number of reasons, organisations like the ILO have tried to regulate the problem by setting out four basic regulations. There should be a maximum period of work per day, and there should not be work at night. Certain types of work for children should be prohibited, and there should be a set minimum age for children to be employed.

 “We have two categories: children working under 14 years old, and children aged between 14 to 17 years old. The second category of children can work legally, but it is very important that they are given their rights,” Metwalli adds.

 But sometimes it is difficult for children to receive the necessary papers in order to work legally under Egyptian labour law. Metwalli notes that “some employers give us a hard time by refusing the right of children to work legally and get paid properly.”

 Child labour is attractive to employers for numerous reasons. Children are often paid less than adults when doing the same job, and they rarely dare to ask for more. Moreover, children are easier to control than adults, and therefore some business owners prefer children to adults when looking to hire employees.

A growing concern: Child labour is a major concern throughout the world, but in parts of Africa and Asia it is a particular problem. Working-age children are usually found in rural areas where families tend to disregard the minimum age requirements for schooling.

 Economics is usually a driving force behind the rise of child labour, particularly in developing countries. Many companies and factories depend for their survival on the low wages that children will accept, and families are willing to send their children out to work to help support them.

In Egypt, poverty is the root cause of the increase in child labour. A study conducted by the Human Capital Development and Operations Organisation (HCDOO), an NGO, has found that nearly 17 per cent of the Egyptian population lives in poverty, with about 12 million people struggling to meet their basic needs. The study found that the poorest region is rural Upper Egypt, where 34 per cent of the population lives in poverty.

 Figures for 2012-2013 showed that the number of people living in extreme poverty in Egypt declined from 4.8 per cent to 4.4 per cent of the population over the course of the year. However, according to CAPMAS, Egypt’s poverty rate has been on the rise over the last few years, with 26.3 per cent of the population living in poverty in 2012-2013, compared to 25.5 per cent in 2010-2011.

Helen Rizzo, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, says, “Given that most children involved in paid work do it to help their families financially, as economic conditions continue to stagnate or worsen more and more families will be in situations where they need the income from their children working in order to make ends meet.”

 In addition to poverty, children dropping out of school is another major reason that the numbers of those engaged in labour is increasing. As a lack of education leads to poverty, this limits future employment.

 Amr, a 14-year-old boy, decided to drop out of school in the fourth grade. He believes that work is more important than learning how to read and write. As he says, “I don’t need education. I went to school for four years, but I got beaten up nearly every day and today I can only write my name.” Money from work is more important than education, he adds.

Amr lives in Al-Menoufiya, where his father is a truck driver with two trucks and earns between LE2,000 to LE3,000 a month. All his siblings are married. Amr gets up at five every day to help his father. “I don’t get weekends off, as we mostly work during Fridays and Saturdays to move cattle to market and so on,” he says.

According to Amr’s father, Amr chose to drop out of school as his friends did the same, and two of them are now earning money from jobs. “We tried more than once to encourage him to go to school, but we found he still skipped classes and joined other kids playing soccer. He lost interest in education,” says Amr’s father, who refused to give his name.

 A 1991 Child Labour in Egypt Survey carried out by the government found that for working children under the age of 15, 53 per cent of boys were working because they had failed school, and 48 per cent were working because they believed that having a job was better than continuing their educations.

 Says Rizzo, “Child labour becomes a problem when it interferes with opportunities to develop intellectual capabilities and skills for future endeavours.” While the law allows children 14 and above to work, as long as the work does not affect their health and growth and does not interfere with their studies, it remains questionable whether this law is strictly applied.


Curbing the surge: International, governmental and non-governmental organisations have all tried to protect children from abusive labour practices. UNICEF and the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour are also collaborating with local NGOs in Egypt to help decrease child labour.

The goal of these organisations is to abolish child labour, or at least to set a minimum age for it. The idea is to ensure that every child has an equal opportunity to develop mentally and physically and to stop work that will prevent him or her from getting an education.

Even though these organisations are combating child labour, they are aware that some jobs will still be performed by children. According to international labour standards, children are allowed to work as long as what are acceptable or unacceptable forms of work for children at different ages are clearly differentiated.

For instance, Terre des Hommes tries to protect children and ensure their quality of education in Egypt. The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood focuses on fighting trafficking through awareness-raising activities and conducting surveys in cooperation with CAPMAS. UNICEF focuses on protecting children in the work force by working with social workers and community leaders to raise awareness among children of the risks they face in working.

The ILO has also been working with Abul-Seoud, a local NGO, to provide literacy classes, vocational training, medical services and food for working children.

 For Metwalli, even though education is important in abolishing child labour, other things are needed too. “Families and the children themselves lack awareness of their rights, so it is important to speak to families, employers and children in order to help create awareness of safety and children’s rights,” she says.

The foundation mostly works in Cairo, Assiut and Damietta. It has found that while many employers are willing to work with it to help improve children’s working conditions, some refuse to even allow the foundation in. These are mostly factories that employ children in the tobacco and cotton industries and other dangerous sectors.

 “We understand that children will still be employed whatever we do, and that’s why we try to minimise the risks by creating awareness that child labour is unacceptable,” Metwalli says. “For children under 14 years old, we try to educate the families, telling them that these children need education in order to protect themselves. The families usually understand, and this is when we start to help the child to get enrolled in school. Once he or she is above 14, we try to help him or her find a job legally.”

 While the law states that not all children’s work is abusive or interferes with schooling, a main concern is how some employers violate the maximum hours a child can work and even mistreat employed children.

Child labour is a highly complex problem, but one solution might be for international and national organisations to set deadlines for the abolition of child labour. The ILO Global Plan of Action on Child Labour has set 2016 as the deadline for eradicating the worst forms of child labour, for example.

The World Bank has also given Caritas, an international NGO, a grant to help eliminate child labour in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya. Working in cooperation with the Wadi Al-Nil Association for the Protection of Quarry Workers in Minya, a local NGO, Caritas has begun helping children to leave the quarries and is trying to improve the working conditions for those who are still working.

Most employed children have not attended school, and thus many if not all of them are illiterate. They lack knowledge about their rights that could help them escape this way of life. This lack of awareness and insufficient social protection are among the reasons why child labour is on the rise and remains a problem in Egypt.

 The consensus remains, however, that in order to combat child labour effectively, the government must implement the rules and apply a minimum age at which children can enter different types of work. The main priority must be the child’s development. Children must complete their required years of schooling and be aware of their rights.

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