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Child labor assumes fatal proportions in Egypt

The latest drowning of eight working children in the Nile Delta is opening deep wounds in Egypt and renewing debate about child labor.
Egyptian boys polish aluminum plates in an industrial area of downtown Cairo, Egypt, April 26, 2000.

CAIRO — Child labor is making its way to the center of debates in Egypt, in the wake of the death of several children on their way home in the Nile Delta province of Menoufiya from work a few days ago.

Eight children from Ezbet al-Taftish, a village in Menoufiya, drowned Jan. 10 as they returned from work at a poultry farm on the road to the northern coastal city of Alexandria.

The children were part of a total of 23 minors working at the farm and returning home in the same village together. That night they boarded a truck to go home after they finished work. But the truck did not make it to the home of the children; it sank in the Nile River.

Fifteen children survived the accident, along with the driver of the truck, but eight others drowned, leaving behind bereaved families and showing the ugly face of child labor in this country.

The accident has given rise to calls for the Egyptian authorities to take further action to curb child labor.

"The authorities need to take more measures to ensure that child labor will come to an end," said Doaa Abass, head the Legal Society for the Rights of Children and Families. He told Al-Monitor, "Child labor will produce a new generation of people who suffer psychological devastation."

Child labor is a fact of the informal economy that employs 55% of this country's workers between the ages of 15 and 65 and contributes almost 50% of the gross domestic product.

Informal employers tend to depend on minors to do most of the work in their institutions because they are paid a lot less than adults.

For instance, there are thousands of poultry farms in Egypt that depend on minors in cleaning, feeding the chickens and collecting and packaging the eggs.

Child labor, a phenomenon the authorities in Cairo work hard to trim, has become rampant.

From the stone quarries in Minya in central Egypt to farmland in the Nile Valley and Delta, and the nation's tens of thousands of unauthorized factories and workshops, minors are the backbone of the workforce.

There are 1.8 million working children in Egypt, including 1.6 million children who are involved in hazardous work. Some civil society organizations estimate the number of working children to be much higher.

"I believe the number is higher than 2 million," Abbas said. "Child labor is present in almost all Egyptian cities."

Article No. 64 of Egypt's Child Law prohibits the work of children under the age of 15. Nevertheless, the same article mandates governors to authorize the work of children younger than 15 in seasonal professions that do not cause harm to their health.

Working children are usually school dropouts who prefer to earn a living to attending their classes, threatening to produce the next generation of illiterate Egyptians. In 2019, there were 18.4 million illiterates in the country, i.e., 24.6% of the population of 100 million.

The children of Ezbet al-Taftish drowned in the Nile when the truck driver could not stop his vehicle soon after he drove onto a ferry that should have sailed them safely to the other side.  

They died as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was watching theatrical shows at the World Youth Forum, his cultural exchange mechanism between Egyptian youths and their peers from other countries.

Ironically, the president was watching the South African Ndlovu Youth Choir performing "Bella ciao," an Italian folk song sung in protest against harsh working conditions in the paddy fields of northern Italy in the 19th century.

Nonetheless, Sisi's administration has been working hard to trim child labor, including by drafting a plan for the eradication of this phenomenon by 2025 in collaboration with the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The Egyptian Ministry of Labor has formed a panel in cooperation with the ILO to eradicate child labor and support Egyptian families. It also formed a special office to find ways to curb child labor and propose initiatives to implement the national plan in this regard.

"We expect these efforts to produce positive results in the coming years," Abdel Fattah Yehia, member of the Committee on Labor in the House of Deputies, told Al-Monitor.

Egypt's new labor bill, which was approved by the Senate earlier this month, also prohibits the work of children under the age of 15.

Nevertheless, child labor is a problem with socio-economic dimensions that will need more than just laws to be solved, specialists say.

Poor and large families in the Egyptian countryside tend to force their children to drop out of school and go to work to earn a living and feed the family.

"Rampant poverty is the main cause behind child labor in our country," Hassan al-Khouli, professor of sociology at Ain Shams University, told Al-Monitor. "Poor families usually force their children to leave school and work to earn a living."

Sisi's administration has been trying to lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty, including by extending social protection to the poor through a series of programs. One of the programs is called "Solidarity and Dignity" and offers financial support to the poor, as food prices keep rising.

Around 3.1 million households, or 11.1 million people, are enrolled in the program and the government makes efforts to increase this number.

However, the fact that children keep working shows that the social protection measures taken by the government are far from enough, specialists say.

The eight children who drowned Jan. 10 got paid 30-50 Egyptian pounds ($1.90-$3.20) a day, according to their family members.

Soon after the truck slid into the river on that tragic night, villagers and rescuers hurried to the site; they managed to get seven bodies out of the river.

The eighth victim, Shorouk Yasser, 16, was found after seven days.

Like all the other children who drowned on that night, Yasser went to work because her family was badly in need of money.

Just like the family of Saeed, 12, who also died that night. "He had to work to help me buy the family's necessities," a local newspaper quoted his mother as saying.

Nonetheless, on the night of the tragedy, Saeed did not have the chance to deliver his day's earnings to his mother.