A 1988 government survey of Egypt found that 1.4 million children between the ages of 6 and 14 work in Egypt.1 Among Egypt's export industries, there is evidence that child labor is used in the production of a small amount of hand-knotted carpets for export. The textile, perfume, and leather industries merit further investigation.
II. Child Labor in Export Industries
Carpet making is a traditional craft in Egypt and children, almost exclusively female, typically learn the craft at home. The children are trained at an early age by an older family member. Some children also work in carpet factories such as those found in a western suburb of Cairo, near the Pyramids. These carpets are sold primarily to the tourist market and the export market, including the United States. The United States imported approximately $500,000 in hand knotted and hooked carpets from Egypt in 1993, though this does not include carpets purchased by American tourists.
The manager of one factory reported that he sells to American tourists and sometimes ships carpets back to the United States for them.2 The factory also regularly ships containers of carpets to Germany for distribution throughout the industrialized world and occasionally ships directly to wholesale dealers in the United States.
Several children between the ages of 10 and 14 were observed working on looms in this factory. The manager claimed that the factory was in fact a school that received government support for its training program. He said that young girls start as trainees at age seven or eight, and it takes one to two years for the girls to learn how to make the knots and how to work from a printed pattern. For another year or two they work on "practice looms" and their product is not sold. By the time the girls are approximately 10 or 11 years old, they start working on professional looms. The owner stated that all of the girls attended school for half a day and would work in either in the morning or the afternoon, depending on their school shift, for up to three hours. Independent interviews with the child workers revealed that not all of them attend school and some work a full day from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., in violation of Egypt's labor laws. The children reported their wages as approximately $20 per month when they first start, rising eventually to $60 or more per month.3
The manager stated that there are approximately 10 other factories in the same district that produce for the tourist and export market, and that their working conditions are generally similar. He also reported that the local factories purchase from home-based producers living in rural villages that also use child laborers.4
A 1985 International Labor Organization (ILO) study of the leather tanning industry in Cairo found that most child labor in the industry was concentrated in small enterprises that produce for domestic consumption. Children were found in two export-oriented workshops covered by the survey. The tasks performed by the children included cleaning, preparing material, and packaging. The children working in the larger workshops generally worked under better conditions. According to the ILO study, the average child working in this industry was 11.7 years old and worked 12.8 hours per day.5
More recent information confirms that children 10 to 14 years old work irregular hours for what was described as "pocket money." It was reported that most of the children attended school and work either before or after classes. Small workshops provide tanned leather to craftspeople in the local area for fabrication into commercial products.6
The United States imports both raw hides and skins and manufactured leather products from Egypt but further investigation is needed to determine whether the manufacturers which buy leather from the small scale tanners, or some of the larger tanneries using child labor, are exporting directly to the United States.
Children are found working in Egypt's small textile factories. In 1993, the United States imported approximately $6 million in textiles from Egypt.7 Research is needed on whether the products of small-scale textile factories reach the United States through sub-contracting or purchasing arrangements with other larger firms.
In 1993, the International Labor Organization, in conjunction with a local non-governmental organization, conducted a survey of 100 small factories (less than 100 workers) and even smaller family operated workshops in one region of greater Cairo, of which half produced textiles. Twenty-five percent of the workers in these firms were children under the age of fifteen.8 Nearly 60 percent of the children worked for employers who were not personally known to the parents, and half worked outside of their immediate neighborhoods.9 Seventy-three percent of the children worked in excess of twelve hours per day and earned an average of $8 per month.10 The study concluded that, "Working hours are no doubt a flagrant violation of the labor law which prohibits the work of juveniles after 7:00 p.m. and before 6:00 a.m., with a maximum of 6 hours, provided it is intercepted with a break, and it is prohibited to assign juveniles work for more than four consecutive hours." In factories that work on a shift system, the study found one-third of the children in those factories also worked the night shift.11 Most of the children reported that their work consisted of cleaning up and carrying tools around the factory, and as attendants to the weaving machines.12
Other Export Industries
Other export industries alleged to use child labor include perfumes,13 handicrafts, spices, and glass. All of these industries require further investigation.
III. Laws of Egypt
A. National Child Labor Laws
Article 124 of the Labor Act No. 91 of 1959 stipulates that no child under 12 years of age may be employed under any circumstances and sets the minimum age at 15 years for some hazardous industries.14 Labor Law 137 of 1981 states that children between the ages of 12 and 15 are allowed to work 6 hours a day, but not after 7:00 p.m. Decrees No. 12 and 13 issued by the Ministry of Manpower and Vocational Training in 1982 specify various hazardous jobs and industries where the employment of children under 15, in a few cases, and 17, in other cases, are prohibited.15
The government is currently considering revisions to its labor code. The draft legislation being discussed would raise the minimum age for work to 14 years and would establish a number of conditions and protections for working children between the ages of 14 and 17.16
In the formal sector, particularly in the state-owned factories where most of export production is concentrated, local trade unions report that Egypt's labor laws were well enforced. By contrast, there appears to be little effort by the government to oversee conditions in the informal sector. Small factories and workshops are occasionally subject to labor inspections although working conditions for children, as well as adults, often remain in violation of labor laws.17 The Ministry of Manpower noted that its 2,000 labor inspectors cited 72,000 violations stemming from 500,000 site visits in 1993.18 On the other hand, independent studies and interviews indicate that many employers view the inspectors as ineffective, at best.19
B. Education Laws
While education is compulsory in Egypt until age 15,20 economic and social factors force many students out of school and into the workplace. Ministry of Education statistics show that 88 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 12 attend school, but a study carried out in cooperation with the World Bank by the National Council for Education Research indicates that 20 percent of the children enrolled in the first grade in the 1979-1980 school year dropped out before completing the sixth grade.21 Due to resource constraints many public schools operate on a shift schedule where up to three sets of children attend classes for approximately four hours apiece. Public school tuition, uniforms, and other school supplies raise the yearly cost of primary education to approximately $15 per child.
Public primary education is also perceived by much of the population to be ineffective. Private lessons are regarded as essential if a child is to successfully complete the exams required for admission to secondary schools. These lessons, which must be paid for, are often given by the same person who teaches the child in the public school.22 One study of working children, conducted by an Egyptian social service organization in conjunction with the International Labor Organization, found that of all mothers interviewed, 90 percent complained of the high cost of education.23
C. International Conventions
Egypt is a party to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Government of Egypt has not ratified ILO Convention No. 138 Concerning the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment or either of the ILO Conventions Concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment in Industry (No.5 and No.59).24
IV. Programs and Efforts To Address Child Labor
The most recent effort to address child labor in Egypt was the 1994 child labor workshops for government labor inspectors, jointly sponsored by the ILO International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) and the Egyptian Ministry of Manpower and Training . UNICEF also has an active program which conducts and sponsors research on child labor.
Interviews with several trade unions, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation and the Arab Labor Organization revealed little activity regarding child labor. The unions are active in the formal sector of the economy where they say child labor does not exist.
Egyptian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focus primarily on research and action to ameliorate the worst aspects of child labor. For example, groups conduct training sessions to teach children a marketable skill in non-hazardous industries, such as sewing. They operate health clinics and literacy programs as well as child care centers for working mothers. Campaigns are underway to raise public awareness of the detrimental effects of child labor. Still other NGOs work to promote government enforcement of existing child labor laws, particularly prohibitions against children working excessive hours, at night, or in hazardous industries.
1 This number represents 12 percent of children in this age group and 7 percent of the total labor force. Among those 12 to 14 years old, 22 percent work. Nader Fergany, Child Labor in the Arab Countries (The Arab Council for Childhood and Development, September 1993) 14 [hereinafter Child Labor in the Arab Countries].
2 Site visit by U.S. Department of Labor official, Giza (May 1994). Bills of lading were observed for approximately 50 orders going to cities scattered around the United States.
3 By way of contrast, informal interviews with adult workers revealed that some professional government workers were only earning $60/month, and waiters were often paid less than $40/month.
4 Site visit by U.S. Department of Labor official, Giza (May 1994).
5 Ahmed Abdalla, "Child Labor in Egypt: Leather Tanning in Cairo," in Combating Child Labor (Geneva: International Labor Organization, 1988) 33, 34 [hereinafter Leather Tanning in Cairo].
6 Site visit by U.S. Department of Labor official to leather tanning workshops in Madabigh, the same district of old Cairo surveyed by the ILO in 1985 (May 1994).
7 U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, Office of Textiles and Apparel, Major Shippers: Textile and Apparel (June 11, 1994).
8 Dr. Adel Azer, et. al., Training and Welfare of Working Children in Shubra El Kheima (Cairo: National Center for Social and Criminological Research and the International Labor Organization, 1993) 34-35 [hereinafter Azer 1993].
9 Id. at 63.
10 Id. at 74.
11 Id. at 72-73.
12 Id. at 75.
13 The owner of a Cairo perfume store, oriented toward sales to tourists, stated that family members as young as 8 and 10 years old worked in processing perfumes and other wood and metal handicraft products. He said that while most of his products were sold directly to tourists, he would occasionally ship items to the United States for tourists that did not want carry them back. He also stated that he was looking to find a wholesale importer in the United States. Site visit to perfume store, Cairo, by Department of Labor official (May 1994).
14 ILO Committee of Experts, E/CN.4/Sub.2/AC.2/1991/5/ADD.1 (1991) 6.
15 Child Labor Legislation in Egypt (Egyptian Ministry of Justice and UNICEF, September 1989) 126-129.
16 "The Project of Labour Law," EGY/92/028, (Jan. 1994) [on file].
17 Azer 1993 at 36; Leather Tanning in Cairo at 33-34.
18 Interview with Abdel Kader El Assar, Under Secretary, Ministry of Manpower and Training, by Department of Labor official (June 2, 1994).
19 Azer 1993 at 51; Leather Tanning in Cairo at 44-46; Various interviews with sources in Egypt by Department of Labor official (May 1994).
20 Conditions of Work Digest, Volume 10 (Geneva: International Labor Organization, 1991) 30.
21 Cited in Dr. Adel Azer, Child Labor in Egypt (National Center for Social & Criminological Research and UNICEF, ) 37-38 [hereinafter Azer 1990].
22 Interview with Imam Bibars, UNICEF, by Department of Labor official (May 31, 1994). See also Leather Tanning in Cairo at 39.
23 Cited in Child Labor in the Arab Countries at 30.
24 List of Ratifications by Convention and by Country (as at December 31, 1992) (Geneva: International Labor Organization, 1993).