No easy solution for Egypt’s child labour problem
Cairo - Twelve-year-old Yasser Fathi had been loading heavy sacks full of onions at a warehouse in Egypt’s central province of Beni Suef onto a truck for hours. When he slowed down to catch his breath, Fathi received a fatal strike on his head from his stick-wielding employer. He had been a breadwinner for his poverty-stricken family.
The May 15th incident highlighted the chronic problem of child labour in Egypt, where more than 2 million minors as young as 7 are believed to be employed.
In a country with 26% of its 90 million people living in poverty, civil society agencies and the government say there are limits to what they can do to tackle child labour, which has increased since the 2011 revolution. The uprising aggravated economic hardships, making the money earned by working children even more important to many families.
“Some of the working children are the main breadwinners of their families,” said Amal Gouda, a researcher with the Egyptian Coalition for Children’s Rights. “They have to work to feed their families or these families will go begging on the streets.”
The government says hundreds of thousands of children are working but Gouda claimed that is an understatement, saying the figure is “far higher than that”. Conservative unofficial estimates put the number of working children at 2.2 million.
According to the Egyptian law, children aged 14-17 may work but not in excess of six hours a day and no more than four consecutive hours. They must be in possession of identification allowing them to work from the Ministry of Manpower.
The law says employers who impede a child’s primary or secondary education can be imprisoned. Additional restrictions prohibit minors from working with large ovens, chemicals, in cement factories and in other dangerous environments.
The law, however, is poorly enforced and Egyptian children do many dangerous and menial jobs, experts said. They work in rubbish collection, workshops and in quarries, and do seasonal farm jobs in the Nile delta, reaping cotton and other crops. Some children join the labour market as young as 7 years old.
Sayed Mohamed, 14, sells pocket tissues on the streets of Cairo with several other children for 5 Egyptian pounds (about 60 cents US) a day. His meagre pay helps sustain his mother and five brothers and sisters after his parents divorced and the father left the family.
“I buy food for my family with the money I earn. My two brothers also work to keep the family going,” he said.
The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), a government agency tasked with the protection of disadvantaged children, said it cannot do anything for him.
The council could also do little for Fathi’s family. It lodged a complaint against his killer at the chief prosecutor’s office and offered some psychological and financial support to the family. Legal experts said the employer faces a possible prison sentence of 7-15 years on manslaughter charges.
“Our country’s social and economic conditions have the final say at the end of the day,” said NCCM Secretary-General Hala Abu Alam. “Child labour will continue to exist as a problem in this country so long as we do not solve our economic and social problems.”
Most working children drop out of school but organisations such Gouda’s try to enroll them in reading classes.
“The problem is that the majority lose interest in attending the classes. This is why child labour is a real plague that jeopardises the future of this country and threatens to affect generations of Egyptians,” Gouda said.
Under Egyptian law, free education provided by the state is a right and compulsory at the primary level. However, there is no law in Egypt holding parents accountable for not registering their children in school.
“A child forced into labour is deprived of all his basic rights, especially the right for education, which leaves an indelible mark on his future… Child labour could lead to a new generation of criminals who will be very difficult to control. That is why it is necessary for the government and civil society to work together to prevent it or at least to reduce it,” Gouda said.