Unsafe and overworked: Egypt's child labour problem

Ahmed Feteha and Michael Gunn, Monday 11 Jul 2011

A report from the ILO marking the World Day Against Child Labour details the dangers for the world's 215 million underage workers

Children Labor
More than half of child laborers work in the agriculture sector. (Photo by Mai Shaheen)

In a new report issued for World Day Against Child Labour, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has warned that a staggeringly high number of children are still caught in hazardous work – some 115 million of the world’s 215 million child labourers.

The report, 'Children in hazardous work: what we know, what we need to do,' cites studies from both industrialised and developing countries showing that every minute of every day, a child labourer somewhere in the world suffers a work-related accident, illness or psychological trauma.
More than half -- 53 per cent -- of the 215 million children labouring worldwide do hazardous work.
While their number is increasing among older children, aged 15-17, progress is being made for younger children, aged 5-14, says the ILO report.
Egypt is a signatory of ILO Convention 138 on the minimum age for work, and 182 on "the worst forms of child labour". Despite this a large number of children are workers, say experts.
Estimates of the magnitude of child labour in Egypt vary significantly depending on the source. The 2006 census -- the last one held --  suggests some 500,000 are involved in child labour, amounting to 3 per cent of Egyptian children. But other studies cited by UNICEF push that figure up as much as five times to 15 per cent.
Studies show that the majority of child labourers work in the informal sector which already takes up 75 per cent of private sector enterprise. 
Workers in that sector are the country's lowest paid in the country and deprived of basic labour rights such as social insurance, health insurance and unionisation.
Hassan Youssef, a lawyer and rights activist told Ahram Online that Egypt’s labour legislation theoretically  protects the rights of children. "The law permits children older than 14 years old to participate in the work force on condition they do not perform hazardous or arduous tasks."
"The problem lies, as usual, in implementation of the law," Youssef says. "We don’t have that culture of respecting children or even acknowledging their rights as individuals."
He talks about Child Protection Committees that exist in every governorate but have no real way to enforce their authority. "These committees are essentially working with minimum funding and support," he says.
Youssef, who is a member on one of these committees, says the Ministry of the Interior is falling short in its enforcing role. At least one police representative should participate in each committee but this rarely happens.
In Egypt, 56 per cent of child labourers work in agriculture and fishing industries. Manufacturing and construction are the other two industries that make majority use of cheap and vulnerable child labour, using around 25 per cent of the underaged workforce.
Several international rights bodies have shed light on child labourers working seasonally in Egypt's cotton fields. A study from Human Rights Watch estimates that around one million children worldwide work on collecting cotton harvests in severe working conditions, involving high temperatures, long working hours and exposition to pesticides.
Lack of education and poverty are, unsurprisingly, common factors in the lives of child labourers.
According to data from state statistics agency CAPMAS, a whopping 78 per cent of the heads of families of working children are illiterate while 12 per cent have not gone through formal schooling yet are able to read and write.
CAPMAS figures also show that 38 per cent of child labourers come from families at the poorest end of the social spectrum, calculated by possessions and other living standards. As wealth indicators increase, involvement in child labour falls.
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