Children form a particularly high proportion of the wage labor force for cotton cultivation, accounting for about a quarter of the total wage labor days in one Nile Delta governorate and nearly 60 percent in parts of Upper Egypt.12 Children take part in most activities related to cotton cultivation, but are conspicuous in two phases that involve intensive manual labor: collection of leafworm egg masses and harvesting. Adult female and child wage labor together account for about half of the total labor involved in cotton harvesting.13 Egg mass collection forms part of the agriculture ministry's pest management program for cotton, and is carried out almost entirely by children working for their villages' agricultural cooperatives.
Casual wage labor in Egypt is most often a function of poverty. A 1997 survey of 2,500 rural and urban households by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found that the poor were more likely to be employed as casual wage labor than the nonpoor, a distinction that proved consistent across rural and urban sectors as well as gender.14 And there is compelling evidence that household consumption, an important variable in measuring poverty levels, is declining; in 1999, IFPRI revisited 348 of the households examined in its original study and found a pervasive decrease in per capita consumption. This decline was especially pronounced in rural Upper Egypt, where half of all the households surveyed "could not match even 77 percent of their consumption levels in 1997...."15
According to IFPRI's analysis of the 1997 survey, agricultural landholdings were key determinants of the economic health of rural families. The survey found a markedly lower incidence of poverty among landholders (23 percent) than among those without landholdings (35 percent),16 and progressively higher levels of consumption as the size of per capita landholdings increased.17 Although a positive correlation has not yet been drawn by social scientists, the decline in rural consumption between 1997 and 1999 coincided with a sharp increase in land rents.
The agrarian reform adopted in 1952 allowed tenancies to be passed on by inheritance and maintained rents below market levels. But in October 1997, a new land law-passed by parliament in 1992, but subject to a five-year transitional period-went into effect. The law abolished inheritable tenancies and removed rent controls, leading to a rapid doubling and even tripling of rents. Interviews conducted in Beni Suef governorate immediately after the law became operative revealed that over 40 percent of randomly selected households had lost all or part of the land that they had been cultivating due to the sudden increase in rents.18 During field visits to Beni Suef a year later, government researchers found that income losses were partly compensated through unskilled wage labor in the agricultural and construction sectors.19
12 Data collected by the Government of Egypt, 1997, on file at Human Rights Watch.
14 Gaurav Datt, Dean Jolliffe, Manohar Sharma, "A Profile of Poverty in Egypt: 1997 (Final Draft Report)," International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), March 31, 1998, p. 26. The key measure of individual welfare used in constructing the poverty profile was per capita consumption, representing "the sum of total food consumption, total nonfood nondurable good expenses, estimated use value of durable goods, and an actual or imputed rental value of housing." Region-specific poverty lines were then drawn to reflect variations in food and nonfood prices. Ibid., pp. ix, 3, 4.
15 Lawrence Haddad and Akhter U. Ahmed, "Poverty Dynamics in Egypt: 1997-1999 (Final Draft Report)," International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), September 1999, p. 16.
16 Ibid., p. 33.
17 Ibid., p. 63.
18 Study conducted for the Government of Egypt, 1997, on file at Human Rights Watch. The high rate of dispossession reported in Beni Suef may reflect the prevalence of tenant farming in that governorate.
19 Study conducted for the Government of Egypt, 1999, on file at Human Rights Watch.