As the epidemic of under-aged Egyptians being forced into the work environment heightens, writer Youssef Galal goes searching for the root of the problem in the heart of Cairo.
Over 3 thousand years ago, our ancient Egyptian ancestors utilized large child workforce to build cities, monuments, and many of the ancient sites we now classify as quintessential pieces of our storied history in contemporary times. More than three millennia later, our country still maintains its position as a Mecca for child exploitation. Unfortunately, despite government regulations stipulating that the minimum age for employment is 14, with it being illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to work in conditions that are hazardous or strenuous, there are still countless underage children exposed to working conditions that are potentially damaging and harmful to their mental and physical health. To be exact, as of 2014 there were more than 1.6 million child workers in Egypt according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics(CAPMAS). These number are based on just those who took the census, signifying that this estimate could be a vast understatement.
The numbers are startling, even for someone like myself who has juggled a myriad of different jobs, ranging from cashier and store sweeper to tutor and writer, since I was 16 years of age. However, these children are not working customary after-school jobs for a little bit of extra spending cash; the overwhelming majority are laboring in arduous conditions to feed themselves and their families.
Most of the time this dependence on a paid salary from such a young age detracts from that child’s ability to attend school on a regular basis, and ultimately deprives them of a normal childhood. At such a young age, shouldn’t these kids be out playing street soccer or having a good time with their buddies during school break? Life is not a box of chocolates and roses like we would hope it to be, and not everyone is fortunate enough to experience even the simplest and purest right in life: childhood.
Is it not the parents' responsibility to ensure that they can provide and care for their baby before bringing them into the world, guaranteeing that the child will be able to focus on schooling without the distraction of a full-time job? In search of the answers, I hit the streets of Cairo to talk to several hard working and persevering children about their occupations.
Zaki Owais, 13, the Enthusiastic Fig Seller
(Zaki on Bab El Louk St. with his produce)
Although I was speaking to someone a mere 13 years of age, Zaki surprisingly proved he possesses the stature and demeanor of a distinguished adult. I caught him on the streets in Downtown Cairo, near Tahrir Square, shoveling a cart loaded of in-season figs waiting patiently to snipe prospective buyers.
How long have you been working for?
Since I was 9 I have been hard at work. I started off delivering medication at a local pharmacy and the feeling of getting my paycheck was like nothing else. I then progressed to farming, which I did not really enjoy much as it was backbreaking work, then finally transitioned to selling the crops as you see now.
What’s your favorite thing about working?
Knowing that I never have to ask my father for anything because I can provide for myself is my favorite thing. I have 6 sisters and no brothers, so as the only other man in the family I feel like I am obligated to help my father as much as possible. For instance, I was able to fund my older sister’s wedding purely on my earnings. That was the proudest day of my life.
Are you still going to school?
Yes I am. Because it is currently summer, I am fortunate to have extra time to work and make money, however during the winter time I am usually juggling a schedule of going to school in the mornings and working during the afternoon.
Hashim El-Araby, 10, the Good-Spirited Sandwich Maker
(A young boy wandering the streets to sell bread in downtown Egypt: Zawaj)
I met Hashim, 10 years old, while grabbing breakfast at my local GAD. Luckily for me, it was very early in the day so the store was virtually empty, allowing me the delight of chit-chatting with him for a bit as I waited for my ful sandwiches to be prepared. Although the majority of his co-workers looked rather groggy and still half asleep, Hashim was as upbeat and cheerful as one could possibly be at 7AM on a Tuesday.
What do you most find annoying about work?
For the most part I like my job as I get free sandwiches when I get hungry, but if I had to pick I would chose being in the kitchen as the most tedious part of my job. Sometimes, especially on hot summer days, the back of the store can reach unbearable temperatures, and during rush hour people are bustling around everyone, making it extremely chaotic.
Do you prefer work or school?
Work for sure. I actually get paid and get something out of the time that I put in. When I go to school I exert effort into something that does not yield much benefit, in reality I actually have to pay for transportation, my materials, and daily meals. Here, I am getting money, not spending it.
What do your parents think about you not caring for school much?
My father agrees with me. He thinks that the best thing for a man to do is make money for his family, which is the same opinion that I have.
Osama Abdel-Latif, 9, Gregarious Garbage Assistant
(A group of boys cleaning up the garbage in Mokattam Village)
Osama is only 9 years of age but helps his father, who is a garbage collector, with his job on a daily basis. After receiving permission from his dad, I was able to ask Osama a few questions about work, and he surprised me by being extremely articulate and well-spoken, with plenty to say as well.
Do you prefer school or work?
Work is fun because I am able to help my father with his tasks, which helps him a lot because he isn’t as tired after work when I am there to assist him. However, school is my favorite because that is where I get to see all my friends, and learn so I can one day make cars.
Is your family supportive of your goals to become an automotive engineer?
Very, my dad and mom always make sure I am at school and on time. They taught me since I was 5 years old that if I want to do something big, I need to focus on studying. While I’m doing my homework my mom makes me jam and halawa sandwiches, that’s the best!
What’s the coolest part of your job?
Watching the machines crush the trash up into tiny compact squares. When we get them they take up so much room, and then they are reduced to miniscule objects.
Alaa Baschar, 12, Handy Construction Worker
(Children load up a cart with bricks on the outskirts of Qalyobiya: AJ)
Although I had met some intriguing figures during my search for young members of the Egyptian workforce, none were more compelling in conversation than Alaa, a 12-year old Syrian, who left his homeland in escape of political warfare all by himself, and eventually found refuge with a construction company that employed him. I spotted Alaa at a villa under renovation in my neighborhood, sitting around at dawn, enjoying a cup of tea as the work day came to an end.
How were you able to find work when you have no connections in Egypt?
I knew I had to find work because begging for money was not on option for me. God saved me, one of the construction workers struck up a conversation with me when he saw me sitting around doing nothing one day, and when I told him about myself, he took me to come work with him.
Have you thought about going to school?
No not really, working is how I am able to make money to feed myself, as well as providing me with a place to stay. School is not really on my mind.
How are you liking Egypt?
The people speak funny, but I like it more than home. Everyone is really nice to me for the most part, and I always find mothers giving me food, extra clothes, and sometimes even extra money to spend. It’s very safe here.
My conversations with these beautiful young minds were a lot to take in when I first attempted to wrap my brain around the general discourse. I had walked into this project with a firm mindset that is strongly opposed to underage labour, and with adamant requests for social and legal reform in our country. I walked out of the experience however as disconcerted and discombobulated as one could possibly be. On the one hand there was a part of each of these kid’s childhood that has been substantially fragmented, as they are stripped of the right to live as dependents for the preliminary portion of their lives, and enjoy the lack of responsibility that comes with it. On the other hand, my conversation with Alaa, in particular, rang incessantly in my head. Sure he would love the opportunity to receive a proper education, and live the life of a normal child, but that is not a pragmatic possibility for him. What could he have done? The only choice he had was to fulfill his most basic and imperative necessities, to find a way to make sure he does not succumb to the pangs of starvation.
The problem is not governmental, institutional, or pertaining to the children themselves. The issue is engraved far deeper in our community than that. How is a child who has not even reached full maturity yet required to be knowledgeable of the correct course of action? The answer can be found by examining the divergence in perspectives offered by the four children. What aspect does Osama Abdel-Latif, the only child who has a profound affinity for education, have that is distinctive from his peers? An excellent support system with parents that take an active role in his progression as a young person. Even if the government increases their efforts to reduce child labour, that modification may only serve to deny millions of people the opportunity to provide for themselves. The change must be societal for it to be effective. It has to be ingrained within our community of parents that it is their obligation, not their choice, to ensure that they can provide their children with enough resources, before conceiving them. This way when a child is born they are not obligated to join the labour force in order to merely survive in the world, and instead can focus on their goals and aspirations.
As I reflected on the four bright boys I had the pleasure of meeting, I couldn’t help but think of my younger brother who is around the same age as they are. What is the deciding factor that results in one child being handed an education, allowed to live care-free, and enjoy an effervescent childhood, while another kid of the same age is forced to work long-hours in order to survive? Nothing but pure fortune and good luck.