CAIRO: A recent study called for amending child labor laws to include domestic labor, and emphasized the need to produce accurate data on the topic.
While other studies estimate that 2.6–2.8 million children are working on the streets, accurate data concerning domestic child workers is lacking, prompting a group of researches from the American University in Cairo (AUC) to address the issue.
“When I started my research on child domestic work, I was told that it does not exist anymore,” Ray Jureidini, director of the AUC Center of Migration and Refugee Studies, who directed the study, said.
“These children are invisible; they work in households and not on the streets, being subjected to risks nobody is informed about. There are no numbers, no knowledge, no awareness of these working children,” he added.
The small-scale study consisted of 74 interviews with former and current domestic workers, as well as with families, both of child workers as well as those who employ them, in Assiut, Minya, Fayoum and Cairo.
It was presented at AUC on June 13 to coincide with the celebration of the World Day Against Child Labor.
The Ministry of Family and Population commemorated the event, hereby reinforcing its commitment to eradicate child labor through family-supporting measures such as loans and micro-credits, as well as measures facilitating access to education for the poor.
“Poverty is not measured by income, but rather through the denial of access to education and a proper living environment,” Moushira Khattab, minister of state for family and population, said on the occasion, adding: “The ideal situation would be to get the children out of the labor market into the schools.”
However, Yasmine Ahmed, one of the researches, said that domestic child workers remain invisible.
“The government is interested in the topic of child labor, as is the press, but they always focus on the most extreme, shocking cases, and never address the topic of domestic child workers,” she said, “Out of sight, out of mind.”
The study aimed at addressing the situation of children under 16 working in households of non-related families for a payment ranging generally from LE 50 to LE 300 a month.
“We had problems of accessibility, these people are not easy to talk to,” Ahmed said.
The results of the study showed that 99 percent of domestic child workers are girls sent to these households for an economic necessity.
“Families where a child works are families who are better fed and who in general are headed by a female,” Laila Iskandar, chairperson for CID Consulting, said.
“It has no cultural reasons, it is a purely economic issue,” Jureidini added.
However, Iskandar still maintains that there is a culture element to it. “Girls work for the family, boys work for themselves,” she said.
However, the girls’ earnings do not benefit them. “The wage is given directly to the parents, who spend it either on current expenses or on the education of the siblings,” Jureideini explained.
The study also addressed on the risks these vulnerable workers face, ranging from psychological problems to social stigmatization and even sexual abuse.
“Working between five and 10 hours a day, they are always ‘on call’ – a constant availability that disrupts their sleep and their free time. They are young, malleable, obedient and can barely defend themselves,” Jureidini said, adding that, “Girls often have the feeling that they have to work to help their family, no matter what the conditions are.”
Ahmed said that interviews conducted with the families who employ children showed that they were often ashamed of employing minors, sometimes as young as 8 years old, but excused themselves with a moral or religious discourse.
She explained that their argument is often, “If we are not taking the child, someone else will. So let’s take her and give her a good life,” she said, adding, “Also, there are more girls available who are under 16, because families prefer keeping their older daughters at home in order to get them married.”
Both workers’ families as well as those who employ them prefer family networks as the means to find a girl or an employing family respectively.
Still, the recruiting system persists. “There are agents who collect girls in countryside villages and redistribute them among families, often in Greater Cairo, which leads to an increased vulnerability for the girls and an insecurity for the families who cannot control where and for whom their child will work,” Jureidini said.
“Families who send their children to work are not cruel, it is their last solution – triggering less expenses and more income at the same time. They are in fact very worried about their children,” Dr. Askander added: “Necessity dictates it. There is an acute need to publicly acknowledge the phenomenon and deal with it without criminalizing the participating parties.”
The study also shows that girls do not always suffer from bad treatment and living conditions. Working in a middle class family can also provide them with opportunities. Some families teach their workers basic skills such as reading or writing, help them issuing ID papers and give the girls compensation such as clothes or toys and jewelry.
Moreover, the girls often enjoy a better quality of life – in terms of food, sleeping conditions and clothes – than they would have living at home. They also acquire the standards, manners and values of the middle class.
“The problem is that child domestic labor is not acknowledged, not regulated and not addressed. Domestic work is not legally recognized as work and therefore excluded from the protective dispositions of the child work law,” Jureidini said.
“A first step would be to introduce a written agreement between employer and employee, ensuring basic living conditions and good treatment – a kind of ‘well-being check list’ – regular contact between the girl and her family, as well as some provisions on the girl’s right to education and free time,” he stressed.
“Our small-scale study does not permit to make generalizations about the number of children working in households all over Egypt, but it proves that it still exists,” Jureidani concluded.