Sunday, June 21, 2009

Child Labor in Egypt

The toil of the young
Thursday 18, June 2009

What is so difficult about upholding minimum age requirements for labor? Jano Charbel investigates

“I wanted to be an actor, but I know that it is not going to happen," said 13 year old Mahmoud Salah who sells ice cold tamarind, liquorish, and carob juice from shiny cylindrical containers in the massive shantytown of Mansheyet Nasser, one of Cairo’s largest informal housing quarters. He said “I go to school and have just finished my exams; I work on this cart with my maternal uncle in summer." Donning a cap, the heat of this seasonal employment didn’t seem to bother Salah, “we work from 10 in the morning all the way till 12 at night; my maternal uncle works the night shift"

Salah has not heard of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) annual conference that taking place from June 3-19 in Geneva, where the Egyptian government is being subjected to criticism over its failure to implement Convention number 138 Concerning the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment – which stipulates that children under the age of 14 years are not be employed, or forced to work. The ILO committee has called on Egypt to double its efforts for the eradication of child labor.

Children under that age of 15 constitute around one-third of Egypt’s population, 10 per cent of these children, between the ages of five and 14, are forced into one form of work or another. The minimum age for child labor permissible by Egyptian law is 14 years. According to statistics issued in 2008 by the United Nation’s agency for children UNICEF: there are an estimated two million and 700 thousand children who are forced to work and toil in Egypt, often in difficult conditions.

The Director of the non-governmental Egyptian Center for Children’s Rights Hany Helal disagrees with UNICEF’s statistics, however. “These numbers are in no way accurate. Other recent statistics compiled by independent NGOs indicate that there are over 4.5 million child laborers in Egypt; while studies issued by social researchers at the American University in Cairo indicate the number may be as high as 5.5 million. There is no way to know for sure, unless more accurate demographic surveys are conducted in each of Egypt’s governorates."

If civil society estimates are correct then 17 per cent to 20 per cent of Egyptian children may actually be child laborers. Meanwhile the lowest of all estimates regarding the number of child laborers are those provided by the Egyptian government – as late as 2008 the government was claiming that only three percent of minors are engaged in child labor, and only seasonally. Officials and spokespersons from the Labor Ministry could not be reached for questions regarding these statistics, updates on the actual number of child laborers in the country, or their child labor inspection efforts.

In any case both Helal and UNICEF are in agreement that poverty is the main driving force behind child labor in Egypt. According to UN statistics 20% of Egyptians live below the poverty line, while another 20% lives just above this level. Helal indicated that the global financial crisis may push additional minors into child labor, and offset governmental programs aimed at addressing this problem.

Just look closely: countless numbers of young children work as helping hands with mechanics, as assistants in electrical workshops; numerous others are found peddling napkins, flowers, and/or begging at traffic lights, while others work at markets, stores, and at dry cleaners where they provide door-to-door delivery services. Elsewhere there are little boys who sit perched in tiny corners by the sliding doors of microbuses as they call out destinations and collect fares from passengers. Outside a metro station in the populous working class district of Shobra El Kheima a distraught mother displayed a photograph of her child to a group of auto-rickshaw drivers and cried out: “Has anybody seen my son Tareq Mohammad? He is skipping school in order to make some extra pocket money by driving a rickshow owned by an immoral and opportunistic man."

“The majority of child laborers are employed in the informal sectors of the economy, such as small workshops, unofficial services, and family-owned projects " said Helal. “In any case child labor has a direct and negative impact upon these children’s levels of literacy, educations, health, safety, wellbeing and life expectancies. Child labor also directly affects families and the state, for it imposes additional burdens on households and state budgets - in terms of increased medical expenditures, decreased levels of education, and lower professional skills amongst the national workforce. I don’t believe that there is any form of child labor which may really be classified as being beneficial or constructive. For any and all forms of child labor involve a denial of educational opportunities, playtime, rest-time, and a general deprivation of childhood activities."

Elsewhere in this sprawling shantytown there is a marble and granite workshop where 11 year old Mustafa Abdel Nasser works. He pushes a wheel barrel laden with fragments of marble and then dumps them into the back of a pickup truck below. With sweat and white dust on his face and arms he said “we’ve ended it ", in reference to his schooling/education. He put down his wheel barrel and added “my father wanted me to complete my education, but I didn’t want to because I don’t like school; and then I also need to make money – for myself and for my family." When asked how much his employer pays him per month, Nasser picked up the wheel barrel from its handlebars and hastily pushed on forth. In any case “the average wage, or earnings, for the typical local resident of Mansheyet Nasser is LE150 or LE 200 per month " (around $US 27-$US 36) according to Manal El Tibi, the Director of the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights. Child laborers or helping hands are usually paid significantly less.

Egypt has often been subjected to criticism at annual ILO conferences for its inability to limit the phenomenon of child labor. The Egyptian State has, in fact, ratified the key international conventions addressing child labor, including both the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1982, in addition to the UN’s International Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, along with the ILO’s Convention number 138 (Concerning the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment) in 1999, and Convention number 182 (Concerning Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention) in 2002. Yet as a state party to all these conventions, Egypt has an obligation to implement and enforce its national child labor legislation in compliance with these international standards. Upholding these provisions has been easier said than done.

According to Labor Analyst, Saber Barakat, of the independent Hisham Mubarak Law Center “the main responsibility for child labor rests with the Ministry of Manpower & Migration, which has now become only the Ministry of Migration as it perceives that it can resolve all of Egypt’s labor problems by sending our workers off to labor in neighboring countries. The ministry is repeatedly failing to uphold the provisions of Convention number 138, and its inspectors seem to be oblivious to the widespread phenomenon of child labor across the country. "

Barakat added that “if the manufacture of Egyptian products continues to involve child labor, as is the case today, then the industrialized countries of Europe and the Americas will move to boycott Egyptian products altogether. This has happened three times already, on a small scale, over the past ten years. If the Egyptian State does not get its act together and exerts a genuine effort to enforce the provisions of Convention # 138, along with the domestic Child Law, then it may be placed on the ILO’s index of violating states. "

The labor analyst concluded by saying that “the Egyptian State ratified the Minimum Age Convention ten years ago, but hasn’t displayed its willingness to implement the provisions of this convention. If Egypt keeps neglecting its international obligations then the ILO may escalate its criticisms by filing complaints before the United Nations’ General Assembly; which may in turn file a complaint to the Security Council – which is empowered to issue warnings, recommendations to refrain from international trade with Egypt, and it may even impose trade restrictions or a comprehensive boycott. ?

According to Egypt’s contemporary legislation governing child labor – specifically Child Law 12/1996, Unified Labor Law 12/2003, and Law No. 126/2008 amending the provisions of the Child Law, the state is obliged to uphold the following provisions: All forms of labor are prohibited for children under the age of 14; vocational training and seasonal employment are not allowed for children under 12 years old; child labor shall not involve work which is hazardous to their health or growth, and must not interfere with their studies. Child laborers of legal age are to work for a maximum of six hours per day, for no more than four consecutive hours at a time; it is not permissible for children to work from the hours of 8pm-7am. Under no conditions is a child to be subjected to employment in the worst forms of child labor – prostitution, the slave trade, trafficking in children, child pornography, adult’s use of children in the commission of crimes, or use as child soldiers. The presence of these worst forms of child labor is said to negligible in Egypt. However, one of the most problematic forms of child labor in Egypt is that involving agricultural labor, especially given that the safeguards listed above are not applied to children working in this sector.

Commenting on this phenomenon, Helal said “it is generally agreed upon that 70 per cent to 80 per cent of all child laborers in Egypt are employed in agriculture. The employment of children in agriculture is perhaps the most the strenuous and detrimental form of child labor, because these children toil from sunrise to sunset under the harmful rays of the sun; plus they are brought in close contact with chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers without protective masks or goggles; there’s also the dust and other airborne particles, and the hazardous risks associated with agricultural machinery. Amongst the other most detrimental industries in which children are forced to work are stone quarries, foundries, smelters, cotton gins, mechanical workshops and glass-manufacturing workshops. "

“It is in the informal sectors where child labor is most prevalent, especially in the so-called stairwell industries which may involve the collection of plastic, paper, and glass for recycling, bottling, etc. Similarly there are stairwell workshops in El Fayoum which manufacture firecrackers and which employ large numbers of poorly paid child laborers. Workplace inspectors from the Labor Ministry tend to overlook these dangerous conditions despite the fact that there are thousands of these workshops across the country. " Helal added that “most of the large companies, factories, and industries here in Egypt, whether they are public or private sector enterprises, do not resort to the employment of child laborers. "

So what is needed to eradicate, or at least diminish, the phenomenon of child labor in Egypt? Helal believes that “a nationwide awareness campaign detailing the dangers and detriments of child labor is urgently required. A change in laws is also needed, especially amendments to the unified labor law, health insurance law, and workplace injuries law. Plus a general change in Egypt’s economic conditions whereby families would no longer need to resort to the use of child labor. "

According to Barakat the Egyptian State is not doing what it should be doing. He said that it “can start by promoting social development, improving its schools’ educational standards, and upgrading its public health care services. Saber added that “Egypt’s poor public educational system is characterized by ill-equipped schools and incompetent teachers, along with a lack of adequate learning facilities and playgrounds. If these conditions are improved then children shall have a real incentive to complete their schooling, without having to resort to child labor. " He went on to say that “declining real wages tend to push working men away from poorly-paid jobs and to push women and children, who are typically paid lower wages, into replacing them in these same jobs. The state should focus on raising wages, curtailing unemployment, and improving working conditions so as to keep adults in the labor market, and to keep children out of it.

In January 2006 the NCCW launched its “National Strategy for the Elimination of Child Labor, " and during this same month, First Lady Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak launched a campaign in coordination with the ILO known as the “Red Card to Child Labor. " Whether or not these campaigns will have any real impact on child labor is yet to be gauged. The World Day Against Child Labor is commemorated each year on June 12.

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