CAIRO â€” Mohammad Gad walks barefoot through the muddy tannery, seemingly not bothered by the acrid odours of chemicals and the stink of unprocessed skins.
He places piles of shaved leather on a cart, pulls it across the workshop and unloads the lot next to the colouring drums where the leather is cleaned and tanned using chrome.
Tall and well-built, Gad joined the tannery shortly before turning 15, after working in several menial jobs for four years since quitting school.
“The school was failing me every year and still charged me money, so I quit,” he said while arranging the leather on the cart. “Now I want to learn this craft to make money out of it.” Helping Gad was Mohammad, who looked younger but was too shy to speak. Around 2.7 million children work in Egypt, or about 10 per cent of the under-14 population, official figures show. The majority work in agriculture, mainly harvesting crops and hand-picking pests off cotton.
Hundreds of thousands of children, many of them homeless, also toil in menial jobs at tanneries and garages, or sell tissues and newspapers at traffic lights.
“There is abject poverty in Egypt, so families use children as breadwinners,” said Nevine Osman, child labour expert for the the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Cairo.
Gad says he earns about 320 Egyptian pounds ($56) a month, more than some state employees. He sends half the money to his family in Assiut, a poor area in Upper Egypt. Mahmoud Mortada, who runs a non-governmental organisation (NGO) helping children who work at pottery shops, said many families approve of children working.
“There is a social acceptance among families of child labour,” he said. “People are unaware of the dangers of children working for more than 10 hours a day in front of a stove.”
‘Our parents are the reasonâ€™
Gad’s tannery is in Cairo’s working class area of Magra Al Oyoun, where streams of sewage run along narrow, unpaved alleys and piles of animal waste are left to rot.
At a shelter run by Hope Village, an Egyptian NGO helping street children, 12-year-old Wagdy Abdel-Aziz says he was paid to roam the streets to collect plastic between dusk and dawn to avoid detection by the authorities. The shelter hosts around 25 homeless children each day, offering hot meals, showers and beds.
“I haven’t got used to work, but it does not bother me anymore,” said 13-year-old Ali Shabaan, who worked as a mechanic and a carpenter before his current job helping erect and furnish tents used for weddings and funerals.
After a meal of beans and cheese, he and the other children huddled in a small room watching cartoon movies on a computer screen and playing cards, custom-made with drawings warning against smoking, illegal drugs and HIV/AIDS.
Most children interviewed by Reuters at the shelter said they were illiterate despite spending several years at school.
The ILO says there are some 218 million child labourers and some 100 million legally-employed adolescent workers around the world. In some regions, the majority of these workers encountered some form of violence or abuse.
Domestic employees, young people working in the informal economy, modern forms of slavery and those doing dangerous work like mining or working on plantations are most at risk, it says. In Egypt many poor families take their children out of school, fearing they will learn no skills in the classroom and end up jobless after graduation. Experts say the education system is failing to meet the needs of the labour market.
The government says the unemployment rate stands at 9.5 per cent, but the figure is widely believed to be much higher. Gad’s boss, Rami Salama, says he cannot afford to have adults doing menial jobs.
“If you look at China, it has flooded the world with its products because of the [cheap] labour cost,” he said. But the emotional cost to vulnerable children forced to work from an early age â€” and sometimes exposed to sexual assault and illegal drugs â€” is very high.
“They are also more prone to depression, anxiety and insomnia than normal children,” said Shams Labib, a clinical psychologist with Doctors of the World, an international health and human rights organisation.
“They usually suffer from family problems…. The [people] who should love and protect them abuse them,” she said.
Amal Shoukry, a 12-year-old girl who has worked as a servant for half of her life, agrees. “Our parents are the reason behind this,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.ï¿½