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Working ﬂat out - the child labour behind your Egyptian cotton sheets
They work 10-hour shifts in 40C heat for 20 pence a day. Their job? Picking the cotton that makes the world's finest bed linen. Dan McDougall reports on the scandal of Egypt's child labourers
Dan McDougall The Observer, Sunday 8 June 2008
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A 6-year-old worker in Egypt. Photograph: Robin Hammond
The musky scent of cheap patchouli rises from a cracked clay incense burner in the tiny courtyard of Shaban Abdulal Zarhel's decrepit mud and brick home. In the corner, next to the scraggly livestock, his wife, clad from head to toe in a sombre black burka, squats on the floor, smearing the deepest indigo dye on her youngest son's forehead. Alongside, her four other children sleep off their relentless morning labour in the fields. By 2pm, after a meagre meal of rice and flatbread, they will return to the boiling heat of the meadows. 'Indigo has been used to ward off harm to male children since early Islam,' my translator, Said, tells me without prompting. 'It is a Bedouin tradition adopted by the Arabs.' Here in the Fayoum oasis, 90km south across the Sahara from Cairo, fear of the evil eye, like locusts and drought, is a constant in people's lives . 'They call the evil eye "ayn",' Said continues. 'Protecting the boys, the next generation of workers, is the most important thing for these families.' Assembled on the ground next to the family stove are amulets, charms and talismans engraved with Koranic script. Shaban Abdulal's wife is pregnant.
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. We have been with the family since the ﬁ rst light crept out of the great desert and into the cotton ﬁelds that surround Zawyat Al Kardsha. one of four boys. and thanks to rich soil and an ideal climate. the couple's eldest son. Outside.. Accurate health studies are thin on the ground here. looks exhausted. Perhaps most alarming is the nature of their work – removing the bollworm. They are hoping for another boy. Habitat. Farafra.. the focus on their plight has grown in recent years.uk/society/2008/jun/08/chil. Though the issue has traditionally been ignored. his voice a whimper of embarrassment and nerves. In the next month the fields that cling to the banks of the Nile will be full of children working the cotton for up to 10 hours a day.the child labour behind your Egyp. Like hundreds of thousands of other people across the Nile Valley.. The worms that eat the cotton are difficult to spot and the earth is dry and dusty.' he tells me. erects a barricade of tightly woven palm branches. Shaban Abdulal and his family are bonded to their ﬁelds. though. According to most NGOs. My family needs bread. known as tabia. as it is traditionally an issue between families. Dakhla and Kharga – have provided refuge and safety for two millennia. Drive across Egypt and you will see children working everywhere. the cotton farmers' nemesis. eradicating child labour in agriculture in Egypt would be impossible. his face is a picture of misery and suffering. even Tesco now carry luxury Egyptian cotton ranges. Instead their days are regulated by the harvests: radishes in winter. Marks & Spencer. is worth billions. But our investigation in the Nile Valley has found that the children are more likely to be victims of modern-day gangmasters. In rural street cafes they serve tea to farmers. nearly all children asked reported beatings by foremen in the fields. with more than 1m hired each year for the cotton harvest.7m children work across the country. John Lewis. and handling plants drenched in pesticides. who recruit them from impoverished families to work the fields from dawn until dusk. Drenched in sweat and dirt. 'But it is hard.000BC. it has been 2 of 8 18/01/12 16:36 . In a recent Unicef survey. Bahariya. Egyptian cotton has become a byword for luxury. http://www. Slumped next to his mother. on building sites they carry heavy limestone bricks. and Egyptian cotton in summer and autumn. Ikea. an estimated 2.' For the children here. Cotton has a long and chequered history. the farming community in the oasis that they call home. from sheets to high street clothing. It may have existed in Egypt as early as 12. but many of the children complain of breathing difficulties at the height of summer. Shaban's youngest son. 'It is my job to take the worms off the cotton leaves. In the west. onions in spring. with holes in his shoes and trousers. No five-star hotel in central London or downtown Manhattan is complete without starched white sheets from the Nile Valley on its beds. seven-year-old Abdul Rachman. to keep the wind-blown sand out of the family home. the majority in agriculture. Then there are the ubiquitous Egyptian cotton towels. Increasingly. there is no school time in between. I feel sick in the heat but I must work. during which they work long hours in 40C heat. Egypt's crescent-shaped chain of ﬁve oases – Fayoum.co.guardian. Today. In Britain alone the cotton business.Working ﬂat out . education is a luxury their parents cannot afford. Looping down from the chaos of the capital and linked by road.
growing a high-yield cash crop destined for world markets. he found cotton growing in the Bahamas. corruption. and as fertiliser.the child labour behind your Egyp. Pakistan and Brazil are the world leaders. http://www. which is crushed to separate its three products: oil.. The oil is used extensively in the preparation of such snacks as crackers and digestive biscuits. once a major client. Even after 7. The US and the UK are Egypt's biggest customers. His other brother. From the depths of poverty. gave him enough money to feed the children for the winter. Around two-thirds of the harvested crop is composed of the seed.000 years. stopped importing in the Seventies. cotton remains our most adaptable and widely used fibre.uk/society/2008/jun/08/chil. textile finishes and other products. which are stronger. Many pay rich landowners ever higher rents for the right to work their modest lands. when it attained self-sufficiency. It cost the equivalent of £200. who grows figs. Shaban Abdulal Zarhel considered himself one of the developing world's great success stories. were initially a success. When Columbus arrived on the American continent in 1492.co. he had grouped together with his neighbours to take on a loan and purchase a hectare of fertile land in the sun-baked heart of the Fayoum oasis. Their decrepit irrigation systems. Egypt is a nation of thousands of Shaban Abdulals.guardian. India. leaving him £50 for the year. pharmaceuticals. but India. are rusting. cotton is the single best-selling fibre in the world. used primarily as a cooking oil or salad dressing. tarpaulins and tents. Last summer. The meal and hulls are used as livestock. on farm-labour earnings of 20p a day. poultry and fish feed. Those who own their own simple farms end up with smaller and smaller plots as each generation's inheritance subdivides farms among several sons. successfully cultivated in the Nile Delta to make fabrics for at least 7.. Now. Limited quantities also go into soaps. banknotes. Egypt's cotton exports are worth £150m. Shaban Abdulal and his friends planted the land with hybrid cotton seeds. high fuel prices and a government that has yet to ease their burden. which pump waters from the increasingly depleted Nile. The cotton seeds. From all types of clothing to spacesuits. Arab merchants brought cotton cloth to Europe about 800AD. a business that should be securing the livelihoods of the farmers. Instead. dwindling water resources.Working ﬂat out . joining the tail-end of the country's agricultural evolution. finer and have greater elasticity than any other fibre. Cotton is actually two crops: fibre and seed. It reached England two centuries later. but the amount of cotton they were able to produce kept falling. India now grows and exports its own 'Egyptian cotton'. The cost of seeds and fertiliser has soared. linen. in terms of production. unofficially supplied by a western agricultural giant. the farmers feel besieged on all sides. trying to survive amid inflation. but in terms of prestige nothing comes close to Egyptian cotton. Only 15 years ago. Cottonseed oil is a common component of many foods. China. the US... Shaban Abdulal spent £150 on cotton seeds and fertiliser. This year promises worse to come. and in the autumn he sold his cotton for £200. meal and hulls.000 years. Today. Like countless other farmers across Egypt. He tells me the biggest victims of the crisis are his children and his neighbours' 3 of 8 18/01/12 16:36 . It is renowned for producing fibres of uniform length. cosmetics.
now work the fields. children. This has led many in Egypt to blame the Americans for creating the crisis. which Egypt hosted. who. the world's largest cotton producer. as we sip weak black tea in the shade of his one-room house. The essential reason. 'How do we find ourselves in this position?' he laments. but you'd be able to start again the next year. but we cannot afford to. cotton prices have plunged. a campaigner for the Land Centre for Human Rights. or even.' Two years ago. by 8am. I can no longer send my children to school. At 10 years old he is a 'veteran' of the ﬁelds. 'I cannot read or write. 'Those who are suffering more are the children.' he says. The harvest is easier – the hours are hard but the weather is cooler. They have no opportunities to thrive or grow. instead of going to school.. Standing waist-high in the cotton of an adjacent field. If you had a bad crop.the child labour behind your Egyp. it does nothing to address the root causes propelling youngsters into this line of work.' Wabid says. More importantly. some as young as five and six.' The youngster shows me his calloused hands. it remains largely unenforced. the dirt ingrained in his palm.. took part in the International Labour Organisation's 'Red Card to Child Labour' campaign during the African Football Cup of Nations. 'Counting seeds and fertiliser. the Egyptian cotton we sleep on in the west comes at the end of a chain of hardship and suffering.' According to Hamdi Wabid. School is for rich children. It is early in the growing season and their vital role is to remove tiny insects and worms that threaten the cotton plants.. to have dreams and ambitions. Suzanne. on his own smallholding and that of other landowners.uk/society/2008/jun/08/chil. 'When my father was a cotton farmer it didn't cost anything to grow his crops. 'We work up to eight hours a day. you'd eat poorly for the year.' Ahmed says. Ahmed Khaled casts nervous glances back towards his foreman. President Mubarak's wife. keeping the cotton safe when the sun is at its hottest. provides generous government subsidies to its farmers.' says Wabid.co. http://www. as in India and Bangladesh. But the problem remains: how can child labour be abolished in such an unregulated environment? While the Egypt Child Law of 1996 bans the employment of children under 14. as children. mainly because of oversupply but also because the US. allowing them to sell at a far lower cost. 'This is the hardest time. like field mice. 'We go to school when we can. the hardest part of the day comes when he enters the cotton fields. 'At the same time. His day begins at 6am harvesting onions. and regulates the hours and conditions of those between 15 and 17. You'd use the seeds from the previous year's crop. the cost of starting each year's crop has jumped from zero to hundreds of pounds. they must work here in the fields with me. and your cow's manure for fertiliser. where child labour is 4 of 8 18/01/12 16:36 . Now we have become dependent on these seeds and the labour of our own families.guardian. a reliable year-round crop.. an NGO that fights for cotton farmers.' Walking across the cotton farmers' pathetic patch of land we find half a dozen children crawling on their knees through the undergrowth.Working ﬂat out . You can be assured that any Egyptian cotton you buy in Britain has been picked or processed or tilled by children.
M&S said. like us. probably the retailer most synonymous with Egyptian cotton. According to the UN 2005 Egypt Common Country Assessment. almost 17 per cent of Egypt's 77. unless you choose reputable organic or fairtrade. Since a military coup in 1952. All of our Egyptian cotton bedding range is sourced from a supplier in the Middle East. It went on to cite how it had banned cotton from Uzbekistan due to concerns about child labour... which is driving change globally and is setting new social and environmental standards for commodity cotton. ' When we contacted high street retailers of Egyptian cotton they responded that as far as they're aware their products are child-labour free. But in the teeming textiles markets of Cairo. Yet when we have pressed companies on their supply chains many tend to fudge the issue. This misses the point. as they battle over coveted parcels of lush farmland. http://www. 5 of 8 18/01/12 16:36 .the child labour behind your Egyp.' It also said that this supplier was on the Sedex (Supplier Ethical Data Exchange) database.source cotton directly from Egypt. would be horrified at what The Observer has found. ' she adds. 'Egyptian cotton is synonymous with luxury. 'We're currently working towards all of our cotton being sourced in line with the principles of the independent Better Cotton Initiative. which has investigated the cotton industry across the world. yet the luxury bedsheets we buy may well be linked to entrenched poverty and rampant child labour.. Egypt has had just four presidents. little attention was paid to similar disturbances in Cairo. I think they. as top-ofthe range quality.co. Last month. yet the reality behind its production is endemic child labour – up to 1m children are working in the cotton ﬁelds each year.uk/society/2008/jun/08/chil. also rife. Egypt's opposition parties face a status quo that has survived for half a century on authoritarianism and Islamism.5m people were living below the poverty line in 2007. According to Juliette Williams. especially in rural areas where the cotton fields lie.. is so murky.' 'The whole cotton supply chain. according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation. spokeswoman for the campaigning British charity Environmental Justice Foundation. all strong military men who have justified the lack of democracy to their people and to the west by citing the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalists. as Haiti burned in the midst of food riots. One in 10 Egyptians is unemployed. 'The irony is that Egyptian cotton is the only cotton that is sold with the country of origin as a selling point. This is a scandal the companies need to address. business has never been worse. John Lewis. The situation is much worse in Upper Egypt. And yet radical change is unlikely. At least 60 people have died so far this year in gunfights between tenant farmers and landlords in the Nile Delta.Working ﬂat out .. is poverty. and simply say they require their suppliers to meet certain standards within the factories that produce clothing. Companies need to get out of the factories and look to the fields. Yet Egypt's current predicament is just one small part of a global problem: 37 countries face a crisis over food.guardian. said it does not '..
Larger farms can afford to regenerate soil by leaving a third of their fields fallow for long periods. Egypt's agricultural heartland.' says Habib .Working ﬂat out . 'I pray here on the ground. Now it's just hurting people – and perhaps most tellingly the environment – badly. next to my cotton.' Habib says. I'm an educated man and not convinced that Egypt's failure to stand up to the United States is at the heart of our problems.700km in length. This is where I get my cotton.' says Hamdi Wabid . dwarfed by huge jute sacks of cotton. is a political one. in private. reducing their annual yields.' says Habib. 'Less than three per cent of Egypt's territory is arable land. While the upper part of the Nile system remains in a fairly natural state. On a Friday morning in late May. a Sudanese-Egyptian trader. what is there for them?' On the wall behind my host is a faded British map of the Nile Valley. sits in a mouldy open shop-front. either that or we will import it from the United States. the Nile is the world's longest river.co. The Land Centre for Human Rights believes the cotton farmers' intensive farming methods are coming back to haunt them. to one-tenth the level they saw a decade ago. It rises near the equator and flows north towards the Mediterranean. if I can't feed myself in the middle of the supply chain. Habib Ahmed. So why can I not feed my family three meals a day? You have to blame the government. and many families are going under. counting wooden prayer beads as the plaintive chant of the azan washes over him. in many cases. 'The best of it is found in the rich farmland of the Delta and the Nile Valley. You should go quickly before there 's nothing for you to see. Occasionally I make out the words 'Bush' and 'Olmert'. The Arabic diatribe echoing around is is largely indiscernible. 'It is becoming apparent that cotton is not an economical crop. from the Twenties. just like everything else.uk/society/2008/jun/08/chil. raising his voice above the aggressive fire and brimstone rhetoric now emanating from the mosque's crackling speakers. 'My decision to pray at my workplace.' he laughs. 'The west may be destroying our cotton industry but I am not a zealot. http://www. You will see this when you meet the farmers.guardian.the child labour behind your Egyp.. Nowhere in Egypt is economic hardship and growing resentment against the west felt more keenly. 'The farmers have still not escaped the old mindset that cotton is a good cash crop.. In his other hand is a crude copy of the government futures projection for this year's crop. In the shadow of the al-Hussein Mosque. but this is impossible for tiny family farms. but soon all our cotton will come from the Sudan and Ethiopia and we will sell it as Egypt's finest.' Spanning nine countries and running almost 6. demands on the river begin to intensify as it reaches 6 of 8 18/01/12 16:36 . He places the grubby sheets of paper on the floor and kneels towards Mecca.. in the dirt. The government tells the world we are having a booming economy. exhausting their soil and polluting the irrigated Nile channel waters that feed it. I don't want to listen to this anger everyday. the twisting narrow lanes of Cairo's Khan el-Khalili bazaar are packed with worshippers flocking through the ancient streets..
In overcrowded villages and towns. the land is shrinking. a professor at the Department of Pesticide Chemistry and Toxicology at Alexandria University. http://www..the child labour behind your Egyp. the dam – built to eliminate flooding. the Nile's decline has had a severe impact on farming. sends saltwater under the rich. raw sewage forms filthy sumps around magnificent treasures. making it almost impossible to grow crops. and the livelihoods of millions of farmers are under threat. where a host of waterborne diseases. using fertilisers that leach into exposed monuments. fertile soil south of the Nile Delta. At this point.Working ﬂat out . Without the new sediments to build up the Delta.guardian. the river fans into this massive delta. increased amounts of water are diverted for agricultural purposes. Sudan. Once beyond Cairo. it is soon slowed by the giant Aswan dam.co. Last year. Not surprisingly. ranging from oils to heavy metals. a 7. This has caused part of the Delta to subside and tilt. in turn. Riad Muhammad tells us he is nine and has never 7 of 8 18/01/12 16:36 . 'Now. experts agree.' According to Maged George. Squatting on the dung-stained floor of his father's outhouse in the village of Zawat Al Kardsha.. Finally.. As the Nile heads north towards Egypt. As it approaches the sprawl of Cairo. while erosion from the sea is now causing thousands of square metres of coastland to be lost each year. such as schistosomiasis. but those first settlements would most likely have been along the banks of the Nile and would have been obliterated by periodic flooding and the course changes of the river. close to the Mediterranean. the Delta's extensive farmlands are increasingly barren. Egypt's Minister of State for Environmental Affairs. we are losing what we have gained over the last many thousand years. where almost 40 per cent of Egypt's industry is located. Farming probably occurred much earlier in Egypt. which. the river's mouth is exposed to even more pollutants. in the city of Alexandria. goats and pigs. In the countryside. also flourish.. provide electricity and open more of the Nile delta to farming – has blocked the Nile's sediments. ' Grim forecasts are being made about how long they can sustain large-scale irrigation. there are growing concerns about the impact downstream. has increased soil salinity and groundwater contamination. Located 900km south of Cairo and completed in 1968. Consequently. and as new diversion proposals come forward. without the ability to renew its soil. combined with the rising sea level.000-year-old site whose residents grew wheat and barley and raised sheep. the Nile becomes increasingly polluted. Delta and Nile Valley farmers irrigate their fields more intensively. which are no longer deposited at the river's mouth.uk/society/2008/jun/08/chil. archaeologists at the Fayoum oasis discovered the old-est known farming village in Egypt. Erosion. with climate change.' says Dr Salah Soliman. the effects of global warming will threaten 15 per cent of the land in the Nile Delta by as early as 2020.
' As we talk I notice Riad's hands. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.uk/society/2008/jun/08/chil. we get treats and money to buy lollipops and balloons. 'I would like some gloves.Working ﬂat out .. All rights reserved.the child labour behind your Egyp. Sometimes..guardian.' he says. cleaning his tiny fingernails with a strand of straw.co. http://www. 'I will be a cotton farmer. They are calloused and worn. after the harvest. If you could send me some gloves I would be happy. My mother tells me she is proud that I work like a man to help my sisters. 'the ants are always biting me. that is my big dream.. seen the inside of a classroom. One day I hope to own my own land. This is my fourth year in the fields.. 'We get time to play and in the evenings we swim in the water channels. like my father and my grandfather.' he says. 8 of 8 18/01/12 16:36 .
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