Early in the morning, stone transport trucks exit the village of Al-Dayaba in the governorate of Al-Minya carrying around 30 workers, on their way to the limestone quarries some 40 KM away, where workers spend their days under a heavy blanket of white dust with only a woolen scarf or a worn out cloth to protect their faces.
Mahmoud Atif, a 13 years old boy operates a stone cutting machine and has a scar above his right eyebrow marking an injury he received when he tripped on a limestone block while uploading stones onto the dump trucks.
According to a study conducted by Al-Nil Association for the Protection of Quarry Workers, child laborers make up around 23% of the total number of workers in this sector.
Our investigation conducted a field survey between December 2021 and March 2022, and covered 50 child laborer cases has revealed the widespread use of young children as laborers at limestone quarries, violating national and international laws which classify work in quarries as a hazardous type of work.
This investigation has also documented the work related injuries sustained by 42 child workers due to the lack of professional safety measures and the absence of any supervision by child protection agencies.
The hazardous nature of quarry work violates the “Worst Forms of Child Labor” convention, that requires its signatories, including Egypt to take measures to stop any work that endangers the health of a child.
In 1996, Egypt had enacted the Child Law which allows the employment of children aged 15 and older, provided that the work "is not hazardous to their health, development and does not interfere with their education.”
The noisy sound of heavy machinery is the first thing that strikes you when you set foot in Al-Minya quarries, as electrical block saws, drills and tractors dig through the layers of solid rock.
Uncovered high voltage cables litter the place as they are used extensively to operate the heavy machinery and run through the length of the tracks of moving machinery throughout the quarry.
We visited 10 of the 172 quarries scattered along 300 km east of Al-Minya city, where we observed hundreds of laborers at work without any protective gears for their hands or faces while handling limestones and other construction material.
According to a 2010 survey conducted by Al-Nil Association for Protecting Quarry Workers, child workers make up 23% of the total number of quarry workers.
The Union of Quarry Workers estimates that there are 55 thousand laborers working in Al-Minya’s quarries alone.
Three years ago, Mahmoud Atif started working at the quarries following in the footsteps of his father who became unemployed due to a work injury. The family found itself forced to send young Mahmoud to work in the same occupation that caused his father’s disability.
Quarries have been offering employment to children of the age of Mahmoud and even for some as young as 9 years of age.
The daily rate paid for children aged 9-12 years old ranges between 20 and 30 EGP (less than $2). Children over 12, are paid up to 50 EGP (less than $3) for a daily 12 to 14 hours work.
As Mahmoud grew older his daily rate has increased to reach 50 EGP/per day (less than $3), but the tasks he had to do became more difficult and the scar on his forehead is a witness to that. Despite his injuries, the young 13 year old continues to work at the quarries this time accompanied by his younger brother.
According to the Director of the Union of Quarries Workers, Mohammad Sayyed Abdul Ghani, children’s work in quarries violates all laws and conventions pertaining to child rights, in addition they are constantly exposed as they labor in an environment that lacks the most basic standards of industrial and occupational safety standards. These children laborers do not benefit from any health insurance or social security cover since their work is considered a type of irregular labor.
In January 2020, Egypt promulgated the Executive Regulations of the Mineral Resources Law which listed the conditions for granting quarry permits and violation penalties.
But those regulations did not take into account the poor working conditions of quarry workers, to the dismay of the union, which proposed making worker insurance compulsory, and a condition for granting quarry permits.
Even the penalties stipulated by the Egyptian Labor Law were flimsy when compared to those stipulated by the Mineral Resources Law.
Abdul Ghani says that the proposal to make workers insurance a condition for issuing quarry permits was completely ignored which enabled quarry owners to continue their mistreatment of workers.
One quarry company owner admits that 200 of his workers do not have any form of insurance, and that customary practices take precedence in the quarries over the laws regulating their employment. In the event of a worker’s death, the quarry owner pays his family a sum of money as compensation, without resorting to any legal proceedings.
death, the quarry owner pays his family a sum of money as compensation, without resorting to any legal proceedings.
This was what we found when examining the police investigation reports covering the case of 18 year old quarry worker Mohammad Nadi, who died as a result of his work injury.
The incident was recorded as having no criminal suspicions, so no legal action was taken against the quarry owner.
In order to avoid the lengthy litigation process, the deceased’s family chose to accept a reconciliation process that calls upon the factory owner to compensate them on the basis of “wrongful death”, as it is known in the traditional local practices.
Absence of industrial safety standards at limestone quarries has led to 70 death cases recorded in 2010 by the Association of Quarry Workers. The director of the association Hussam Wasfi, expects that this figure might increase to over 150 in 2017.
This investigation randomly selected 50 children who worked either regularly or irregularly at the quarries. Analysis of their data showed that 84% had suffered deep wounds on the job.
According to Abber Abdul Rahman, a nurse at the Dayaba clinic, the absence of industrial safety standards at limestone quarries has catastrophic consequences.
Injured quarry workers, most of whom are children, often walk into the clinic, “ bleeding in the head, or legs or hands, and if their injuries are not serious, I treat their wounds, stitching, bandaging and follow up.”
Patients records at Al- Dayaba village clinic shows that during the first half of this year, 30-40 children are injured each month without indicating the type of injuries. Nurse Abeer has confirmed though that most are work related injuries resulting from child labor at the quarries.
According to a survey conducted by Al-Nil Association and published by the Union of Quarry Workers in 2019, the number of work related injuries of children at the quarries reached 115.
For the past five years, the job of Abdul-Aal, 14 years old, has been to collect the sawdust from the cutting machines.
He says: “There are times when I am unable to breathe or sleep especially on windy days. The dust gets into my nose and mouth and I cannot speak or sleep.”
The particles resulting from stone cutting are called “Silica dust”. Doctor Sameh Wahba, a pulmonology and allergy consultant in Al-Minya, says that the daily exposure to silica dust leads to chest allergies and shortness of breath, in addition to difficulties sleeping and lethargy. Increased exposure to these particles may exasperate symptoms and lead, on the long run, to Silicosis.
A 2010 study conducted by Al-Nil Association for Protecting Quarry Workers in the eastern villages of Al-Minya showed that Silicosis is the leading disease affecting quarry workers, especially children.
The study conducted by Al-Nil Association also showed that around 96% of its study sample (200 children) contribute to the family’s household budget.
Families push their children to work in the quarries and usually receive their wages daily through older workers. This is according to a quarry employee who stated that he personally hands over daily earnings of younger workers directly to their families.
This has also led to an increase in school dropout incidents among the area’s youth. For example, Mahmoud Atif dropped out immediately after finishing primary school, while Abdul-Aal left one year prior to completing his primary school.
Abdul-Aal and Mahmoud both agree that the learning environment did not encourage them to remain in school. Mahmoud was still unable to read even after completing primary school, and Abdul-Aal needed special tutoring which his family could not afford, hence leading him to work in the mountains.
According to Al-Nil Association’s survey, the number of school dropouts among their study sample reached 35%.
This applies to 40 of the 50 children sample used in this investigation.
Tawfiq Mohammad, the former acting principal of Al-Dayaba School, says that all attempts to bring the children back to school tend to fail due to the exhausting nature of their work and its conflict with school hours.
Child labor affects their interest in learning, and leads to them failing their classes and eventually to their permanent suspensions.
Dropping out of school usually occurs during primary or middle school, hence, the former acting principal views that it is rare for a working child to resume his education at a later stage.
And this constitute a violation of the Child Law that prohibits depriving a child of regular education.
Mahmoud and Abdul-Aal began working before the age of 15, which is in violation of article 64 of the Child Law.
Article 97 of the same law stipulates the formation of a “General Committee for Childhood Protection” in each governorate.
Also, according to this law, the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) shall establish a General Department for a Children Helpline, mandated to receive children and adults’ complaints, and handle them efficiently to protect children from all forms of violence, neglect or risks.
Upon contacting the Children Helpline to further inquire about the necessary measures taken to confront child labour in limestone quarries, we were informed that the helpline only receives complaints and refers them to the child protection unit of the entity subject to the complaint.
When we contacted the child protection unit in Al-Minya Quarry Centre, we were informed that the centre had not yet established a unit that specializes in quarry child protection.
Emran Ahmad Mahmoud, the owner of one of the quarries we visited defended his use of child labor as an effort to help with “the difficult financial circumstances” of the children, adding that child protection committees used to send inspection teams and impose small fines for child labor at the quarries.
But this contradicts the statement made by Ahmad Misilhi, Head of the Child Protection Network, who explains that any form of child labor in the quarries is strictly prohibited regardless of a child’s financial circumstances. As for the small fines imposed on violating quarries, Misilhi says that there should be a penalty of imprisonment for at least 5 years, for any “child exploiting quarry owner.”
Misilhi blames the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood as the entity “responsible for protecting children,” adding that the law has loopholes as it hands child protection authority to unqualified governorate child protection committees.
This drove him to submit a draft proposal to parliament for a child law that activates the supervisory role of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood.
Article 74 of the current Child Law stipulates that “Whoever violates the provisions of Part 5 of this Law shall be penalized with a fine of not less than one hundred (100) Egyptian pounds ($5) and not exceeding five hundred (500) Egyptian pounds ($27).’
Legal counsellor Sayyed Abdul Ghani, the Secretary General of the Union of Quarry Workers states that such fines are too lenient and that “the owner of any quarry can get out of a law suit with a mere 100 EGP, that is if he was found guilty in the first place.”
Abdul Ghani says that, throughout his career, he has never witnessed a quarry owner standing before a judge in a case of child labor violation.”
Hence, Abdul-Aal and Mahmoud shall spend their childhood working in the quarries without any official deterrent in place to prohibit their exploitation in an industry that threatens their physical safety and long term wellbeing. This sadly applies to almost 12,000 children working in Al-Minya’s quarries which, according to Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, ranks No. 1 in child labor.