Abdullah, age nine, has been working his way up the chain of command in a small marble workshop in Shaq El Tho’ban—one of the largest marble industry hubs in Egypt and the world.
A few years ago, Abdullah was using different tools: a pencil and a notebook back when he was still in school. But his family’s dire financial circumstances forced him to drop out of school and enter the job market.
"I wanted to become a doctor," he recalls, but a different fate was in store for Abdullah; continuing his studies was an opportunity cost that his family could not afford given the earnings he can bring in.
Such is the fate of many children like Abdullah. Children aged between six and 12 toil daily in Shaq El Tho’ban, handling the behemoth cutting machines with care and a sense of trepidation, or hauling around the heavy marble slabs throughout the workshops.
Abdullah begins his work at 8:00 am and does not leave the workshop until 12 hours later. Despite the long hours and the dangers of this profession, he earns a meager 150 Egyptian pounds ($8) per week.
"I wish I could afford to get an office job," he says. Abdullah's job does not include any coffee breaks, and yet he is expected to remain extremely alert throughout his shifts, as the work involves dealing with machines that could easily sever a limb in a matter of seconds.
But even as he manages to avoid the hazardous machinery, Abdallah’s small body is covered in bruises and scars, from the marble slabs that frequently fall on his hands and arms. When this happens, he dresses the wounds and goes back to work.
One of the newest recruits in Shaq El Tho’ban is seven-year-old Hussein. He shadows one of the senior workers, who operates a large machine with a circular disk the size of a car tire, supervising the stacking of marble slabs.
There, he spends 10 hours a day in the closed workshop. He walks out for a few minutes every day, to inhale a few breaths of fresh air.
During the short lunch break, Hussein eats with his fellow workers, and because there are no nearby sources of water, the water is transferred by pick-up trucks in rusty containers.
Diseases such as intestinal and renal failure and other infections are highly prevalent there.
Almost every worker suffers from asthma or another chest disease, due to inhaling the dust resulting from the cutting and moving of marble.
The most fortunate survivors will escape with some injuries, fractures, and possible chemical burns caused by the concentrated sulfuric acid used to polish the marble.
Yet, these children are condemned to working there, to support their impoverished families.
Over 1.5 Million Child Laborers in Egypt
Article 80 of the Egyptian Constitution forbids the employment of children under 18. Article 65 of the Egyptian Child Law prohibits the employment of children who have not completed their basic education in high-risk professions.
However, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics issued a report in 2011 indicating that the total number of child laborers in Egypt is about 1,594,000, aged between five and 17. Girls make up almost 21% of this figure.
The UNICEF also reported that 1.6 million children in Egypt between the ages of five and 17 are employed, while 5.7% of those work in hazardous conditions.
There are approximately 1.6 million child laborers in Egypt; a number that continues to grow every year.
With most families struggling to make ends meet, child labor is rampant in Egypt.
A senior worker and a workshop owner in the Shaq El Tho’ban area says that although there are about 900 factories in the area, only 50 are licensed.
During administrative campaigns to inspect the facilities, the children are simply hidden or sent on leave until the inspections are completed.
Ahmed Meselhi, head of the Children's Defense Network at the Lawyers Syndicate, says the phenomenon of child labor has ballooned to “frightening proportions” in Egypt, particularly in Shaq El Tho’ban. He points out that even the dismal figures reported by CAPMAS are inaccurate, underestimating the actual number of child laborers.
The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood and the Ministry of Manpower claim that the issue is being resolved. They have stated that figures have already dropped drastically from 1.8 million child laborers in 2010 to just 1 million today.
However, Meslehi tells Raseef22 that, in reality, the number of child laborers doubles every year. "They are extremely cheap labor," he said. "Many families need the money, and so there are always plenty of children to join the workforce."
Further, according to Meselhi, who acts unilaterally to file reports to the authorities, the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood has not really intervened or taken action to mitigate the issue. And when they do, they move slowly.
Meselhi says that, in cases of violations, the Ministry of Manpower does not file lawsuits against offenders, although it has the legal power to do so.
Globally, the ILO considers child labor in quarries as the worst form of employment. It is banned for children. Defendants could face life sentence.
The Work Comes First
At another workshop, 11-year-old Fahmy comes in the morning. After hours of polishing marble with a machine, he emerges caked in white marble dust that saturates the air in the tightly-packed workshop.
Fahmy dropped out of school, leaving behind his dreams of becoming a soccer player, to buy his sister's dowry and help his father feed the family.
He says that he has milk and honey every day to help with the dust problems. However, sometimes he cannot afford even that, and so “I just rely on God’s good mercy”.
A few months ago, his arm was injured while using a marble cutting machine. He bled for three hours, as there was no first aid kit in the workshop nor any nearby hospitals or pharmacies.
The closest facility was a small clinic a few kilometers away. He simply bandaged his wound there and ran back to work.