Saturday, August 29, 2009

Child Labor within Egypt's Fishing Industry

Al-Masry Al-Youm
Thursday 27, August 2009
Children on the water

Hundreds of thousands of underage fishermen face harsh lives
By Jano Charbel

BORG MEGHEIZAL---Twelve year-old Deif Allah Ragab works on a diesel-powered winch at one of the maintenance dockyards. Operating the loud, smoky and greasy machinery he pulls a large wooden fishing boat while four (equally young) co-workers place wooden sledges and planks underneath it as it comes ashore. After turning off the winch, Ragab said “I used to go to school until I was ten, but school is expensive and I don’t like it." He added “I prefer to work here, I have friends here and I can make money here."

In addition to operating the winch Ragab scrubs and cleans the hulls of fishing boats, and is an assistant carpenter on the docks. He works from 9am-5pm six days a week, and gets paid LE10 (less than $US 2) per day.

Mohamed Hassan, 13, works at the same dockyard but only during the summer months when he is on vacation from school. He helps lodge boats in place, and assists in the painting and carpentry of boats. He earns the same daily rate that Ragab does. Hassan said “I work here during vacations, but I go to school the rest of the year. I want to be an engineer."

At another dockyard nearby 11-year-old Saeed El Kawi sits next to his father on a wooden bench outside a ship-building workshop. He has embarked on three fishing trips so far this year. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, the boy immediately replied “fisherman." But his father Saeed Senior said “I really hope he doesn’t become a fisherman. I started to work on these boats when I was 12, and I know from experience that it is a tough job."

An estimated 450,000 child laborers are employed in Egypt’s fishing industry nationwide where they are exposed to numerous occupational hazards and are denied their educational opportunities. Child labor within the fishing industry is said to be rampant along Egypt’s 2,500 kilometers of coastlines, as well as along the Nile and on Lakes Nasser and Qaroun.

Abed Hamdy, a field researcher at the Land Center for Human Rights and specialist in the labor affairs of fishing communities said child labor is common to all Egypt’s coastal governorates. But it is most pronounced in the Governorates of Port Said, in Fayyoum on Lake Qaroun, and especially in Rashid (Rosetta) in Beheira Governorate, and the town of Borg Megheizal in Kafr el-Sheikh Governorate.

In Borg Megheizal, child labor is omnipresent; children are employed at coffee shops, bakeries, and grain mills while others drive auto-rickshaws (tok-toks.) Yet the majority of child laborers are found on fishing boats, loading catches and then unloading them on shore, or as helping hands in the docking, building and maintenance of boats.

Residents here estimate that around 50 per cent of the town’s children are employed in the fishing industry. Local resident Ashraf Ali, an ex-fisherman, said that number may have been around 90 per cent two or three decades earlier. “Back then all the men and boys in this town where working at sea, while all the girls and women worked in their homes," he said.

Saeed Al Kawi Senior said the work conditions are tough for fishermen of any age. The boats may be out at sea for a week or two weeks at a time, and the large fishing trawlers may be out for even longer. “Each time it takes you away from your family, wife and children," he said. “I would like my son to complete his education and choose any other profession."

Another resident, who didn’t give his name, said that the impoverished villagers have little choice other than a life on the boats. “There are no other professions to employ people here. Unemployment rates are high and the government has neglected us and there are practically no development projects," he said. “What difference does it make if you complete your education or not? Even if you do, where are you going to find work here except at sea?"

In addition to the harsh condition, Hamdy, the labor researcher, said the underage fishermen “are subjected to the worst forms of exploitation, and are frequently injured by machinery and moving mechanical devices on board these boats."

At sea these child laborers are exposed to the harmful rays of the sun, harsh weather and humidity; all of which detrimentally affect their health and wellbeing. Children are subjected to falling overboard and drowning, some boats sink or capsize while out at sea jeopardizing the lives of fishermen, and especially the children amongst them.

“Fishermen employ child laborers because they get paid less, are more obedient and are easier to boss around than grownups. These child laborers are frequently bullied and physically abused," Hamdy said. “Alarmingly, we have also received numerous reports of sexual harassment and molestation of these children at the hands of fishermen. Along Egypt’s north coast some trafficking networks are also smuggling children via fishing boats to Italy and Greece where, more often than not, they are forced to work for criminal gangs and mafias."

There are no reliable statistics available as to the number of underage fishermen in Egypt. However, studies indicate that approximately 15 per cent of Egypt's three million child laborers are employed in fishing. "We are talking here about hundreds of thousands of children who are missing out on their educations, many of whom are put on fishing boats as soon as they are able to be utilized as helping hands," concluded Hamdy.

Most Egyptian child laborers, an estimated 60 per cent of the total, are employed in agriculture. Egypt has frequently faced criticism for not doing enough to curb its child labor rates—most recently at the annual conference of the International Labor Organization in Geneva in June 2009.

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