Each year over one million children between the ages of seven and twelve are hired by Egypt's agricultural cooperatives to take part in cotton pest management. Employed under the authority of Egypt's agriculture ministry, most are well below Egypt's minimum age of twelve for seasonal agricultural work. They work eleven hours a day, including a one to two hour break, seven days a week-far in excess of limits set by the Egyptian Child Law.1 They also face routine beatings by their foremen, as well as exposure to heat and pesticides. These conditions violate Egypt's obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to protect children from ill-treatment and hazardous employment. They are also tantamount to the worst forms of child labor, as defined in the International Labour Organization's Convention 182, which Egypt has not yet ratified. Children were forcibly recruited to take part in pest management as recently as ten years ago, and some farmers continue to believe that they will be fined if they resist their children's recruitment. However, most children today are compelled to work by the driving force of poverty.
The children's task for the cooperatives is to aid in controlling cotton leafworm infestations by manually removing and destroying infected portions of leaves. The work-mostly performed during the summer recess from school-plays an important part in protecting Egypt's major cash crop from one of the two main pests that perennially threaten it, and significantly reduces the volume of pesticides used to control infestations. But in the four years since the adoption of the Child Law, the ministry has taken no apparent steps to ensure that the cooperatives comply with the law's provisions governing child labor. Without enforcement of the Child Law by the state and its subordinate institutions, compliance by private actors in Egypt can hardly be expected to follow. By drawing attention to the abuses experienced by children engaged in leafworm control work, Human Rights Watch hopes to promote the adoption of affirmative measures by the government, including those recommended in this report.
Manual control of leafworm infestations forms an integral part of the agriculture ministry's pest management program for cotton, and is carried out under the direction of agricultural engineers assigned by the ministry to each cooperative. An agricultural engineer interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that children were exclusively recruited for this work because it was more economical than hiring adults, the children were more obedient, and had the appropriate height for removing damaged leaves. Although the Child Law sets the minimum age for seasonal agricultural employment at twelve years, our research indicated that a majority of children engaged in leafworm control operations were below the age of twelve, with a significant proportion employed from the age of seven or eight.
A 1965 ministerial decree requires farmers to provide at least one child to the cooperative for remunerated leafworm control work, a requirement that appears to have been enforced in some areas until the early 1990s. Today, however, cooperatives appear to have little difficulty in recruiting children. Growing rural poverty, coupled with a steady decline in the percentage of farm land allocated to cotton, has given rise to an ample supply of child wage labor in much of rural Egypt. Both of these economic developments may be linked to economic liberalization policies aimed at moving Egypt from a centrally planned economy to one shaped by market forces. While Human Rights Watch does not take issue with the merits of economic restructuring as such, the government needs to take account of the impact of rising land rents on household consumption and the participation of children in wage labor. In our field research, Human Rights Watch found that it was children from the poorest rural families who were most likely to take part in leafworm control work, and who were consequently the most vulnerable to overwork, pesticide exposure, and maltreatment by foremen.
Human Rights Watch conducted field interviews in two villages in the central Nile delta governorates of Daqahliya and Gharbiya, where we interviewed ten children who had recently taken part in leafworm control work, as well as agricultural engineers, foremen, and local farmers. The names of the two villages, as well as those of the children and adults whom we interviewed there, have been changed in this report to ensure their security. While time constraints limited our sample, we were able to corroborate many of our findings with rural development specialists and with the Land Center for Human Rights, an Egyptian nongovernmental organization (NGO) that has conducted independent research on leafworm control work in the same governorates. Because leafworm control work is a centrally organized activity, the conditions of employment appear to be broadly consistent throughout cotton-farming regions of Egypt, although as we found, observance of health and safety precautions may vary by village.
Children in the villages we visited earned an average of E£3 (US$0.81) per day, and worked from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, with a one to two hour mid-day break, seven days a week. These hours exceed considerably the maximum period for which children may be employed under the Child Law: six hours per day, up to six days a week. The children work in groups of fifteen to thirty, each of which is supervised by a foreman hired by the local cooperative. Nearly all of the children we interviewed recounted routine beatings with wooden switches, inflicted by foremen whenever a child was perceived to be slowing down or overlooking leaves.
Several organophosphate and carbamate pesticides are registered for use in Egypt to counter cotton leafworm and bollworm infestations during the middle of the growing season. Exposure to these chemicals may result in pesticide poisoning that is both acute-with effects such as dizziness, vomiting, or diarrhea-and chronic, including disruption of the nervous, endocrine, or reproductive systems. Children are especially susceptible to pesticide intoxication, due to physiological differences from adults that facilitate pesticide absorption and retention, as well as their greater sensitivity to specific toxic chemicals at given concentrations.
The precautions taken against pesticide exposure varied between the villages that we visited. Children resumed work on cotton fields either immediately after spraying or following a twenty-four to forty-eight hour hiatus, a period that still falls short of the recommended intervals for reentry after the use of certain registered pesticides. Although the agriculture ministry has adopted an integrated pest management program aimed at reducing pesticide use, farmers have attempted to address a perceived shortfall in pesticide application with additional spraying of their own. The health hazards presented by such excessive usage have been exacerbated by the ready availability to farmers of pesticides identified as highly hazardous by the World Health Organization.
Measures to protect working children from heat-related illnesses are also inconsistent and often inadequate. Children in one village told us that they had to bear the cost of purchasing protective caps as well as a pail for storing water. Requests for water were granted at the discretion of their foremen; some foremen only permitted children to drink during a single fifteen-minute break in a six-hour morning work period.
The cooperatives' disregard of Egyptian laws governing the minimum age for seasonal agricultural employment and the hours and conditions of children's work; their economic exploitation of children; subjection of children to physical maltreatment; and failure to protect children from known health hazards contravene articles 32 and 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. That the cooperatives continue to perpetrate these abuses with the authority of the Agriculture Ministry calls into question Egypt's commitment to implementing and enforcing the Child Law, which was adopted in 1996 to carry out its obligations as a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Human Rights Watch therefore recommends the measures specified below to bring the ministry's manual leafworm control operations into compliance with the convention and the Child Law.
1 Under Egypt's Child Law, a child is one "who has not completed eighteen full years of age." Law No. 12/ 1996, Enacting the Child Law, article 2. English translation published by Compilation of the Egyptian Legislations, Cairo (Dr. Essam A. Mohamed, Counselor). The Convention on the Rights of the Child defines the term "child" as "every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier." U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, G.A. res. 44/25, annex, 44 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 167, U.N. Doc. A/44/49 (1989), article 1.