Child Labor… A Necessary Evil – Part 2

Imagine if you will, walking down the streets of London in the year 1800. At the height, if its industrial age the city’s buildings have all turned into an unseemly grey hue from the factories nearby. You look up at the sky and see thick fog engulfing the city in a tight blanket for as far as the eye could see.

Yet, you are happily willing to accept the pollution, for after all England was ushered into the age of steam engines and the accompanying material wealth due to its zealous pursuit of industrialization. England had suffered miserably in the 1700s from high unemployment, and the new steam factories offered an excellent chance to turn things around. 
Or did it?

Imagine also, after a nice meal in one of London’s restaurants, you decide to take a walk around in the city. After all, the streets which were broken down in the last century have just been paved over, allowing carts and people to start driving and walking safely.  Its 8 PM and your legs take you to a small weaving workshop, where you see tens of 12 years old children file out into the streets. The children are going home for the day, only to sleep a meager amount of hours so they can wake up the next day at the crack of dawn to toil away their soft skin into callused hands.

While the industrial revolution taking Europe by a storm was hailed as the primary engine of economic abundance, factories often had an ugly underbelly that revealed the need for national and international laws to regulate their operations. Namely working condition and child labor.

Many children were sent there from workhouses or orphanages to work long hours in hot, dusty and dangerous conditions, where their tiny bodies would be utilized to crawl through narrow spaces between fast-moving machinery. It was not uncommon for children to have a 12-hour working day, and accidents happened frequently.

By 1810, about 2 million school-age children were working 50- to 70-hour weeks. Most came from poor families. Poverty stricken families unable to provide for their children would sometimes turn them over to a mill or factory owner, where they would earn a meager salary for endless hours of painstaking and often dangerous labor.

Are you outraged? Trust me you are not alone…

Britain was the first to pass laws regulating child labor. From 1802 to 1878, a series of laws gradually came to the scene with the aim of shortening working hours, improving working conditions, and raising the age at which children could work. Other European countries adopted similar laws.

However, a law is often only the first step towards changing cultural attitudes. In often cases, culture might actually take more time to catch up with a legal framework, than the other way around. In the case of child labor, we must always bear in mind that in the 1800s, when such laws first started emerging, the global scene probably considered child labor as means out of poverty and degradation for many families, who could not otherwise feed their children. As the example of Britain shows, this attitude was shared by both developed and developing countries alike.

Moreover, we need to pay close attention to the reasons behind the regulatory framework, and to look deeper into a more comprehensive picture of beneficial child employment. The law was clearly motivated by protecting children in dangerous circumstances, as well as protecting children from dropping out of school at an early age.

However, what happens then to the kids who help their parents on their farms, or in their stores? What becomes of high school youth who are willing to work as to make some extra money during school vacations? For me personally, I am a massive fan of apprenticeship systems that helped youth get on-the-job training and learn valuable skills that are often neglected by the education system.

The answer to all of that, was a compromise. Without completely eliminating all forms of child employment, the member nations of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the United Nations ratified three key documents that shape the global understanding of child labor, namely the ILO minimum Age Convention No, 138 of 1973, ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor of 1999, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990.

The ILO website summarizes the child labor international regulatory framework in the following table:

The minimum age at which children can start work.

Possible exceptions for developing countries

Hazardous work
Any work which is likely to jeopardize children’s physical, mental or moral heath, safety or morals should not be done by anyone under the age of 18.

(16 under strict conditions)

(16 under strict conditions)

Basic Minimum Age
The minimum age for work should not be below the age for finishing compulsory schooling, and in any case not less than 15.



Light work
Children between the ages of 13 and 15 years old may do light work, as long as it does not threaten their health and safety, or hinder their education or vocational orientation and training.

13 – 15

12 – 14

There are two interesting things to note in that table. First, the possible exceptions for developing countries column. The UN is made up of sovereign states who cannot be coerced into ratifying documents they believe is not in the best interest of serving their respective cultural norms and practices. Second, the definition of light work above clearly stated as work that does not interfere with school enrollment. As such, it would allow youth to pursue vocational and apprenticeship training programs after school hours, babysitting to make money, or merely help their parents in their stores.

At the end of the day, while child labor is still a widespread problem that affects millions of children and families across the globe, it is essential before we start criticizing every form of child employment out there, to understand the legal framework against which the system operates. After we have that clear picture in our minds, only then can we debate the merits and downsides of the existing system.

The rationale behind this legal framework is an understanding of the undeniable fact that some kids, somewhere out there, need the skills that come from labor, and sometimes, do need the small amount of money that comes with it. After all, nothing could teach discipline and responsibility than helping your dad run the family business at a tender age, or helping your mom sow the fields that your family depends on for sustenance.

Child Labor, A Necessary Evil? Part 1

Standing at McDonald’s today, waiting impatiently for my order to arrive, I was shocked by the teenage boy (no older than 15) handing me my brown paper bag order. Standing next to him in a grey apron was an even younger child, perhaps no more than 12 years old, whispering worriedly in his elder’s ears.
What the hell… was my first thought.
I felt completely outraged. How could a child work for a living!! I wanted to spring into action. First, I was going to ask the boy for his age, indicating that there is a problem here. Second, I would loudly make a scene with the manager to see if other people at the store would support my outrage. Third, perhaps even post the issue on Facebook to get public opinion behind the problem. I mean, after all, that would be the right thing to do, this is after all child labor, which is morally and legally just WRONG.
Child labor is a global issue that has haunted politicians since the 1800s. A 2016 ILO report estimated the number of children (between the ages of 5 -17) in labor as 152 million globally, of which, 73 million were in hazardous work. However, not all of these children were employed in morally questionable circumstances frowned upon by the International community.
But then it hit me. Had I asked the boy about his age, he would’ve probably lied …
Why would he do that, you ask? Because there is a chance he WANTS to be there.
As I observed his behavior more closely I noticed he obviously relied on his older friend for some advice. They were there together, perhaps even siblings. And if they were indeed related, could this job be a method of earning a living for a family that was struck by some sort of misfortune where the kids have to bring in cash instead of the parents? Maybe his parents are sick, or disabled somehow.
Of course, there is a chance also that he DOESN’T want to be there, that his family is made of a drug addict father who is using his kids to fuel his unemployed filthy habit.
The point is, I didn’t know his circumstances, and shouting loudly at the manager was not going to give me the answers I wanted. But that got me thinking about the validity of the whole “child labor” moral objections we as a society have been programmed to believe in. After all, the child was really in more danger than he would face helping his mother cook in her kitchen.
The child obviously comes from a poor family, and even if he goes to school regularly and attends university, he would be lucky to find a job in an economy where unemployment was 10%, and where unemployment of holders of an intermediate, university and higher degrees reached 87.7 percent of the total labor force.
What if this situation could be viewed as an apprenticeship. The situation actually gives the child valuable experience that he could later build on for the rest of his life. After all, he would have his foot in the industry, and perhaps one day he could open his own restaurant. I had recently come from a trip to Assiut where I interviewed three 19 years old teenagers who started operating their own cafe’s relying on nothing more than the experience they gained while working in similar vocations.
So I started to wonder, is all form of child labor illegal?
Turns out it wasn’t. According to the ILO, there are various categories of child labor, some of which was permitted legally. Children in employment is defined as a broader measure comprising both child labor and permitted forms of employment involving children of legal working age. There is also the definition of children in light work, where national laws or regulations may permit the employment or work of persons from 13 years of age (or 12 years in countries that have specified the general minimum).
Child Labor, on the other hand, excludes children in employment who are in permitted light work and those above the minimum age whose work is not classified as the worst form of child labor, or, in particular, as “hazardous work.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the “nasty” forms of child labor. They are children in the worst forms of child labor, defined as children working in slavery, prostitution, illicit activities, or work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children. Children in hazardous work are those involved in any activity or occupation that, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm their health, safety, or morals.

So a kid working in MacDonald’s clearly fell in the first group of child employment, provided his age was no less than 13 or 12 years old. The kid was doing light work, after school hours (it was 5:00 pm when I saw him), and was not engaged in any shady or dangerous work. He was actually permitted by international conventions to be exactly where he was. As far as I am concerned, he reminded me of the bygone “apprentice” term, where kids at all ages would be permitted to shadow an older person in a vocation of their choice, in order to learn much needed skills that was not offered by conventional education.
So yaa I am all for it, but I wanted to learn more about child labor and apprenticeship history. Why did child labor get outlawed in the first place, and what happened to the apprenticeship mentality? That however, is the subject of another article…

Our Beautiful Gilded Cage

In recent years the government’s plans to move informal settlements dwellers to government constructed projects has been hailed by many in the media as a respectable move that should have a positive impact on people’s lives. In reality all the move actually accomplishes is to make the city appear to be nicer by destroying some of the ugly red-brick buildings that are home to around 60% of the population of Cairo, but besides that it achieves very little else.

While many of these new home owners have filed a myriad of complaints against their new adobes, from high rent rates to difficulty in obtaining food and gas resources to issues with unit ownership, the government has yet to address the concerns of these new home owners, and chucks most of their complaints as unreasonable, and therefore fails to correct the problems perceived by the new settlers.

The key success factor in any development project has been regarded by many international development agencies as stakeholder participation, because after all, who can better describe their needs and assess the validity of intervention methods that the beneficiaries themselves. Despite this trend the government has yet to consider the demands of the residents of the newly established cities, and as such they leave a time bomb of concerns waiting to erupt at any moment.

The problem is that despite the government’s best intentions, such initiatives fails to address the root cause of the problem of informal settlements, which is chronic poverty. Moving people from informal settlements to the newly constructed government buildings is similar to taking a bird with tattered feathers and a broken wing and putting it in a gilded cage; its all show and no subsistence.

Therefore, it is unsurprising to find people complain of a 300 LE rent, which seems to any onlooker as a meager amount that is well below the actual maintenance cost of such residential units. However, when you compare the needed rent in proportion to monthly income (reported by some to be between 300 – 1000 LE) and the historic rent prices such residents are used to (which could vary between nothing for those who owned their apartments to around 20 LE), the amount in the eyes of the new resident’s borders on impossible.

Therefore, the only method that could assist in resolving this bottleneck in the project’s lifespan is the introduction of income generating schemes that would help the residents increase their income sources and therefore contribute more fully towards the maintenance of the project. An urban resettlement project that is devoid of such schemes will run the risk of failure as it simply becomes nothing but a beautiful shell devoid of the means to sustain itself.

Officials were often cited as saying that some of the resident’s concerns have already been met, for example, food stores have opened in the neighborhood with cheap prices, transportation has been made available, and schools do exist, with attempts to overcome any difficulties they might face in acquiring teachers. As for the rent issue, some have been deemed exempt such as widows and divorcee’s and people with disabilities, with NGO’s vowing to help others who are deemed unable to pay, a move while admirable, still fails to address the root cause of the problem and therefore will most likely prove unsustainable in the future.

Yet between official statements and resident’s reports there seem to exist two pictures that do not quite match. In Egypt, this a normal occurrence, but it leaves one wondering on how can we judge the truth when its seems so elusive, and how can one contribute positively to the discussion of the issue when all the facts are prone to multiple interpretations.