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Egypt: Cotton Co-Ops Violate Child Labor Laws

Children overworked, mistreated, exposed to pesticides

Egyptian children employed by cotton-farming cooperatives work long hours, routinely face beatings at the hands of foremen, and are poorly protected against pesticides and heat, Human Rights Watch said in a new report "."

The children are employed under the authority of the Agriculture Ministry, and the Egyptian government has a responsibility to ensure compliance with the country's 1996 Child Law.

"Egypt's Child Law was an important step forward, but its labor standards are not being applied to children working for the cooperatives," said Lois Whitman, executive director of the Children's Rights division of Human Rights Watch. "The way children are treated in the cotton fields is deplorable."

The twenty-page report, "Underage and Unprotected: Child Labor in Egypt's Cotton Fields," documents conditions faced by more than one million rural children who are hired each year from May to July, largely during the school recess, to control cotton leafworm infestations. Working eleven hours a day, seven days a week, the children inspect cotton plants for leafworm eggs and manually remove infected portions of leaves. An agricultural engineer assigned to one of the cooperatives told Human Rights Watch that children were cheaper to hire, more obedient, and had the "appropriate height" for inspecting cotton plants.

The children's working hours far exceed the maximum six hours per day for which they may be employed under the Child Law. A majority of the children are between the ages of seven and twelve. They earn on average three Egyptian pounds (about one U.S. dollar) each day. Temperatures in Nile Delta cotton fields can reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Requests for water are granted at the discretion of the foremen.

Nearly all of the children whom Human Rights Watch interviewed recounted routine beatings with wooden switches by foremen whenever a child was perceived to be slowing down or overlooking leaves.

Human Rights Watch also found that children resumed work on cotton fields either immediately after pesticide spraying or after twenty-four to forty-eight hours, a period that falls short of the recommended intervals for reentry after the use of certain pesticides registered for use in Egypt. Human Rights Watch welcomed the agriculture ministry's recent establishment of "learning groups" to educate farmers about pest management methods. It noted that the ministry had made significant strides in recent years to reduce the volume of pesticides applied on cotton, and had banned the use of several categories of hazardous pesticides.

In its report, Human Rights Watch called on the government of Egypt to:

uphold its minimum age for seasonal agricultural employment and limits on working hours for children,

monitor the treatment of children engaged in leafworm control operations,

take disciplinary action against foremen found to have mistreated children in their care,,

establish "reentry intervals" that reflect children's greater susceptibility to pesticide absorption and retention, and monitor spraying by farmers,

restrict the availability of pesticides considered highly hazardous by the World Health Organization.

Under a 1965 agriculture ministry decree, farmers are required to provide at least one child to the local cooperative for paid leafworm control work. Although that decree no longer appears to be enforced, Human Rights Watch noted that it had a potentially coercive effect and called for its formal repeal in the report.

The report released today is the second issued recently by Human Rights Watch on child agricultural labor. In a report issued in June 2000, Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers, Human Rights Watch found that there are hundreds of thousands of children and teenagers working as hired farm labor in the United States They risk pesticide poisoning, heat illness, and injuries, and receive fewer protections under U.S. law than children working in non-agricultural settings.

Human Rights Watch is an international monitoring organization based in New York. It is entirely privately-financed and accepts no funds from any government.

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