Yes, you. And me. And almost everybody else you know in this country.
It’s a shocking title, but it’s true.
Perhaps that was the wrong way to begin this article. Here; let me try another one.
What is child labor?
Child labor is a form of human trafficking, which is a modern-day form of slavery. Human trafficking is the illegal trade in human beings for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation, and is most common among women and children. Child labor is the employment of underage children in regular or sustained work.
So how old is “underage”? Legal text definitions of that age vary between 14, 16 and 18. How many under-aged children have you personally witnessed in labor? Countless.
Forced child labor includes what is known as Involuntary Domestic Servitude, which is basically having an underage servant in your home. We also see forced child labor all over our streets and in our homes; at the mechanic’s, the barber’s and the hairdresser’s, the grocery store, the beggars that jump in front of your car at a red light, plumbers, cleaners, carpenters, garbage collectors and the list goes on. They also exist in places that we don’t necessarily have direct contact with; in factories and industrial zones like Herafeyeen and Ein Al Seera.
Here are some facts. Though it is extremely difficult to gather accurate information on the number of child workers in Egypt, it was estimated in studies held in 2009 at over 3 million. This estimate in rather optimistic, though. Children as young as 4 years old work as steel vendors, domestic workers, agricultural laborers and factory workers. They work in sewing clothes, cleaning, printing, car mechanics and carpet weaving. Children aged 4 to 15 form a quarter of the workforce in the leather tanneries in old Cairo; keeping in mind that this in an extremely hazardous industry. Hundreds of children work in brick factories south of Cairo, loading bricks all day long. Hundreds of thousands of children go to school part-time and spend their afternoons and evenings working.
The products we buy from local branded stores, such as carpets, furniture, leather products, linens and clothes – all proudly made in Egypt and all proudly labeled “Handmade” – are made by children. Not in China or India, but here; in Egypt. This is not about what we watch on imported American television shows, this is about what we live in, day-to-day.
Here is some history. Child labor has existed for centuries. It was very common in Europe and children workers were a common sight in workhouses, coal mines, cotton mills, glass factories and potteries. Countless child injuries and deaths have been counted through history, and even more are left unknown and unrecorded.
In Egypt, child labor is a common phenomenon. We are accustomed to letting a seven-year-old plumber into our homes, to employing – and sometimes even preferring – a young girl as a stay-in maid and to seeing young children waist-deep in our open car hoods with a screwdriver and a light bulb. We sometimes even argue that we provide good homes to the young maids who work for us and that we treat them much better than their own parents ever will. Ironically, this is probably true.
Studies show that poverty is the main reason behind child labor, helping increase the family’s income. Caretakers (for lack of – a better word) of these children have a distinct mentality and approach on the issue. To them, it’s cheaper by the dozen. The more children they have, the more money the family will make. It’s that “simple”. It’s not about trying to provide them with a life that was better than theirs, or with the education that they never had. It’s about how much money can each child bring in. Issues such as stripping them of their childhood and their innocence, or putting their lives at risk daily, or answering to a God in the hereafter tend to be muzzled by the noise coming from hungry stomachs.
There are also those who literally sell their daughters to the highest bidder; pimping them in seasonal under-aged marriages to Gulf tourists. These marriages last for a few weeks, and the young girl never sees her “husband” again afterwards, in many cases left pregnant and still in wedlock. A UN Special Rapporteur called Joy Ngozi Ezeilo was on a 10 day fact-finding mission in Egypt in April 2010 and, among her comments, she said that her study results show a growing trend of sexual and economic exploitation of young Egyptian girls by their families and brokers. They execute marriages that are popularly known as 'seasonal or temporary' marriage that sometimes provide a smokescreen for providing sexual services to foreign men.
I was surprised by her use of the term “brokers”. It seems like this is an industry, like the stock market, that requires middlemen and negotiators who bargain and receive commissions on their deals.
Numbers and figures show that child labor does not necessarily have a negative impact on the economy; on the contrary, it may actually help. More workers means more money flow, and cheap labor means more and better business for investors and business owners. In actuality, children are better workers than adults because they are more obedient, easier to control and accept lower wages. Child labor resembles a vicious cycle that is extremely difficult to break. The only victim in this equation is the child; the adulthood that comes along too soon, the abuse that carves its scars on the soul and the innocence that is never even given a chance to see the light. We could be risking the emotional and mental well-being of an entire generation here. Aren’t these young men the ones who sexually harass us on the streets? Aren’t these young women the ones who steal your jewelry, food and clothes, thinking it was their right to do so? The mental and emotional turbulence and abuse they are forced into as children simply strips them of the right to sanity and ration as you know it.
Child labor also deprives children from getting a proper education that can enable them to find more suitable working chances with higher income levels and better working conditions later on. Arguably, we don’t want the entire society to be made up of doctors, engineers, marketers and accountants. Of course we need the plumbers, electricians, carpenters and tailors. For that, there are schools and educational institutes that specialize in teaching labor skills, and they already exist in our educational systems. They take in children after their primary educational stages are done and teach them how to be good industrial workers or technicians or craftsmen, rather than having them learn it while enduring physical and mental abuse. This schooling begins after the child has learned how to read, write and do math, giving him his basic – very basic – right to literacy and perhaps an acceptably normal childhood.
There has been considerable awareness on matters of child labor issue in recent times. Egypt’s First Lady has put sizeable effort into the elimination of child labor and several NGOs are doing their part as well, not to mention the reports and studies that are periodically made by the United Nations and the ILO (International Labor Organization).
Is that enough, though? Can we sleep well at night, knowing that this national catastrophe is being handled by these entities?
Is there a role that each of us – individually – can play?
For starters, don’t let the laundry boy come pick up the clothes for ironing, take them to the shop yourself. Don’t allow the plumber in if he’s dragging a child behind him, making him carry the heavy tools and do all the dirty work. Don’t encourage street children by giving them money, and, if you must, give them food or clothes or shoes instead.
Your individual role may not be that significant, but it will surely ripple among your sphere of influence and be imitated by others once you let it be known. Many of us don’t even realize that we are indirectly encouraging child labor in our country because we simply don’t recognize it as child labor. We have grown completely accustomed to the “scene” of the child maid, child plumber and child electrician that it doesn’t even cross our minds that this young person – honestly – has no childhood.