Egypt’s aluminium industry thrives on child labour

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  • Over the past 50 years Mit Ghamr has become Egypt’s cookware production hub
  • Adults and even children work here in hazardous conditions to earn money
  • Meanwhile, officials turn a blind eye to child labour and health hazards

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About half a century ago, Mit Ghamr in the north of Egypt was turned from a green agricultural region into a major center for aluminium cookware production. Back then, the new industry attracted thousands of farmers who left their fertile farmlands in the heart of the Nile Delta to compete for more lucrative factory jobs.

The center now accounts for some 60 per cent of the aluminium cookware industry in Egypt, which employs approximately 40-50,000 people, including children.

Work in the cramped and hot factory rooms begins at 10 in the morning and ends at 8 in the evening. After spending long hours in the aluminium factories or workshops, the workers’ faces are silver from the metal dust.

The silver-colored dust floating in the air can destroy eye tissue, while inhalation of the dust particles can lead to lung nodular fibrosis, according to a study published by the Egyptian Ministry for Environmental Affairs [1].

Despite these hazards, no health or environmental official in Mit Ghamr is speaking out yet against child labor in these workshops.

In fact, child labour seems to be tolerated at an institutional level. Inspectors from Mit Ghamr’s departments of environmental affairs and cccupational health and safety are convinced that it is fair for parents to send their children to work. "They are poor and they need money, so why should we condemn them?” an inspector says.

And workers are willing to accept the dangerous conditions of factory work as their earnings allow them to complete their education and provide for their deprived families.

"There is no one in Mit Ghamr who did not work in the aluminium workshops – for at least some time,"  one environment and occupational safety inspector told me.

Ahmed al-Tobji, director of Mit Ghamr’s health department, is among those who worked here to pay for their education. "I became a doctor thanks to the aluminium polishing workshops where I worked to save up the money needed for education,” he tells me.

Most workers have no choice but to rely on the workshops to make a living, even when they are aware of the dangers associated with polishing aluminium. They incorrectly believe it is possible to counteract the hazards associated with the industry by drinking milk and honey. Still, most leave the profession at the age of around thirty as they realise that the workshops’ environment will destroy their lungs in the long run.

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Mit Ghamr has many big aluminium factories. The majority of the small aluminium polishing workshops are located in the slums and poor parts of the center. In total, there are four hundred factories, according to the Aluminium Manufacturers' Association.

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Workshops are cramped and the air is filled with silver-coloured dust containing aluminium particles, which are known to damage eye tissue. Studies also link exposure to this dust with nodular lung fibrosis.

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Children polish the aluminium cookware in hot, cramped rooms. Because their salaries are lower than average, the industry thrives on child labour.

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Aluminium workers don’t usually work at the same workshop for more than six months as they prefer to move from one workshop to the other. They usually work without any health insurance or social protection for work- related hazards..

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Despite the hard work, children may have a smile on their faces. But many have to drop out of school as they become responsible for providing for entire families.

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The workers rarely wear these protective face masks as they do not find them comfortable, and factory owners do not provide them for free.

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Reporters are not allowed to visit big factories or take photos of their workers, as many of them are children and the law forbids child labour. But small workshops are less protective and allow reporters to investigate.  

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Sayed, 22, says that working in the aluminium workshops was his only opportunity to earn some money in order to get married. "My peers haven’t gotten married yet and haven’t found any job opportunities,” he says.

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Before returning home after a long day at work, the workers wash off the silver-colored dust and residue covering their bodies.

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Islam, 11, and Mohammed, 12, wait outside the workshop at the end of the work day for their daily wage of 20 L.E (2.5 US$).
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Middle East & North Africa desk.


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