Child labor is the employment of children under an age determined by law in any kind of profession. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child solemnly condemns this practice in its article 32 by stipulating that : “States Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development”.
In fact, the article unequivocally considers child labour as a form of economic exploitation and recognizes its harmful effect on the child’s health and social development.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has been signed and ratified by the overwhelming majority of UN Member States, and therefore its provisions constitute a binding obligation that should be reflected in the internal legislation of each country. However, the local customs and practices often perpetuate different forms of child labour that remain “socially tolerated”, despite the clear exploitative character. Thus, in Egypt many children, especially daughters from poor families, work as domestic servants in the homes of wealthier families. Local culture supports this role for girls, by pretending to believe the famous and sole justification of this form of child labour: the girl is being well treated by her “masters”, who do fear God. Yet, the truth is girls working in domestic service very often suffer physical and sexual abuse within the homes where they work. The Egyptian cinema addressed this tragedy in an abundant number of movies. And even if her employers omit any abuse, domestic servants are deprived of their fundamental right for education, recognized by the Egyptian 1971 Constitution. Besides the children do not benefit from any rights stipulated by the labour law, i.e. annual leave, sick leave or salary increase. This extremely vulnerable situation guided some lawyers to even qualify this practice as a form of human trafficking, for the child is actually trafficked without her/his consent, deprived of her/his freedom of movement and right of education. In each case, you cannot “fear God” and employ a child as your servant.
Yet, domestic service is not the prevalent form of child labour in Egypt. Government and independent studies reveal that the concentration of working children is higher in rural than in urban areas. Nationally, the greatest number of working children is in agriculture, where children very often suffer from harsh working conditions, including beatings by the supervisors. Moreover, children from economically or socially disadvantaged families work as apprentices. The famous mechanic’s apprentice nicknamed belya has become a folklore figure, underlining the widespread practice. Children also work in some industrial sectors as well as the service sector.
The Egyptian Child Law n*12-1996 promulgated on 25 March 1996 declares in its article 64 that : “Children shall not be employed for work before attaining fourteen complete calendar years of age. Nor shall they be provided with training before they attain twelve calendar years of age”. These provisions already raise the minimum age of employment that was set at 12 by the Labour Law. However, the minimum age for work or training have to be increased further, in order to ensure a better protection of the child well being and education, especially in a country where illiteracy remains a major challenge. In addition, Egypt is committed under the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to work on ensuring that by 2015 all boys and girls complete their primary education.
As previously mentioned, child labour predominantly occurs in the agricultural sector. The same article 64 of the Child Law stipulates that : “Children of 12 to 14 years of age may, by decree of the concerned Governor, after obtaining the approval of the Minister of Education, be employed for seasonal work which should cause no harm to their health or growth, nor disturb their punctual studies”. This exception is widely used as the children’s seasonal work is important in some governorates, mainly for cotton-farming cooperatives. In April 2001, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation Affairs issued Ministerial Decree No. 1454, making it illegal to employ children below the age of 14 in agriculture, which was a certainly a step in the right direction.
The Child Law does impose strict rules related to the working conditions, as it requires that: “A child shall not be employed to work for more than six hours a day, and the working hours shall comprise a meal and rest interval or more than one interval amounting to a total of not less than one hour. This/these period/s shall be determined so that the child shall not be made to work more than four continuous hours.
Children shall not be employed to work overtime, or work during the weekly rest days or official holidays. In all cases, children shall not be made to work between 8pm and 7 am”.
There is not any need to highlight that the requirements related to the working conditions are rarely respected. If ever in doubt, just pay a visit after 8pm to your mechanic, your grocery shop or simply the shop next corner. Not to mention that the children do not enjoy the limited working hours imposed by the law.
The important question will be: what is the punishment the legislator issued for the inhuman employer who hired a child under the minimum age of employment or who hired a child over the age without respecting the legal working conditions? One would expect a punishment proportional to ruining the educational future of the child or exploiting a vulnerable person. Yet, one would be rather stunned by the harmless penalty sentenced for the violation. “A fine not less than one hundred Egyptian pounds and not more than five hundred Egyptian pounds. The fine shall be repeated according to the number of workers towards whom the violation is committed. In case of recurrence, the penalty shall be increased to twice its amount”.
Well, the legislator is a bit to merciful with those perpetrators, don’t you think. If we also consider that this includes the punishment for exposing the child to health-threatening conditions like the August heat or cold winter nights, we realize that the legislator’s mercifulness is definitely mal place.
So who should be actually working on implementing these legislation? The Ministry of Manpower and Migration is responsible for labor inspections, and maintains approximately 2,000 inspectors who are charged with investigating safety, health, and age violations. Inspectors work out of 450 different offices in Egypt’s 26 governorates. In 2000, the Minister of Manpower and Migration issued the Decree No.117 which established a specialized Child Labor Unit within the labor inspection department. Certainly, with this limited staff, the Ministry is not to be blamed for the numerous violations that would require a larger number of inspectors.
The real and sole solution to this problem would be only through a mechanism, where violations of the child labour regulations could be directly reported to the authorities by the citizens that have to take their role as the real inspectors.
Once in the beginning of the 20th century a lawyer went to a theatre and was shocked by the sight of a ten-years-old child singing at a late hour, instead of sleeping in preparation for his school. He immediately called the police, which immediately returned the child to his home. This person was Egypt’s prince of poets Ahmed Bey Shawki and the child saved from exploitation was Singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab. Many talents are still to be saved. We all have to honour our moral commitment not to tolerate child labour.