You see them everywhere. From afar they look like men because of the jobs they do, but many of them are children barely over 14 years old.
Difficult living conditions have increased the prevalence of child labour in Egypt so that the sight of children working has become commonplace.
Ashraf, 13, refused at first to talk to Al-Shorfa in front of his workplace, but he opened up and shared his experience. He said he started working at a steel workshop four years ago, after his father took him out of school to learn a profession because he could not pay his school fees.
"I get 150 pounds a month that I give in full to my mother so that she can provide food for my four brothers," he said.
Working children live under difficult conditions
There are no accurate statistics on the number of child workers in Egypt since the majority work in unlicensed facilities.
However, a study conducted in 2009 by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, in collaboration with the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation, said the figure is approximately three million -- most of whom live in rural areas nearly three-quarters of whom are boys and the rest are girls.
"The published figures of some studies cannot be considered final or representative of the actual number of child workers due to the dispersion of child labour and its prevalence in various provinces," said Dr. Nahed Ragab, director of the Statistics Department at the Ministry of Manpower.
Ragab told Al-Shorfa that the Ministry of Manpower, the Ministry of Social Solidarity, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Family, the Ministry of Population, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Health are collaborating with the World Food Programme to tighten controls on the businesses that employ children.
"Collaboration is in full swing with civil society institutions, taking into consideration that the Ministry of Family has recently launched a hotline (16000) to help citizens report instances of child labour," she said.
"There are many practical steps taken by official authorities, like supporting primary school pupils and securing work for one of the parents in cases where it has been verified that there is no source of income which has led to a child’s seeking work," Ragab said.
Ragab said children are often found working in workshops, tanneries, handicrafts, domestic work, cleaning jobs, and agriculture.
She said the children work for little pay and live under difficult conditions.
"In the best case scenario, the wages children receive do not exceed 20 pounds per day," she said. "Children who move from one province to another due to harsh living conditions at home are housed in large numbers in a single room. As for young maids, they do not receive their wages, as the money is sent to their parents."
Dr. Abdul Ghani Othman, general supervisor of the National Observatory for Child Rights, said the prevalence of child labour is related to the harsh economic conditions Egyptian families face, in addition to some social traditions that consider child labour as normal, especially in certain handicrafts and agriculture.
"Working children are deprived of the minimum necessities of life such as clean water, meals, and safe transportation," he told Al-Shorfa. "They are exposed to oscillating climatic factors such as extreme heat or cold and to physical injuries. They are also deprived of holidays and the minimum necessities of leading a normal childhood."
Egyptian artists address the issue of child labour
Egyptian writer and director Fawzi Saleh started working when he was ten years old. He collaborated with actor Mahmoud Hemada to produce the film "Living Skin", which confronts the problem of child labour in Egypt.
The film highlights the problem by shedding light on the lives of two children working in tanneries.
"The film shows the social and systematic risks that stare children in the eye every day, beginning with their exposure to gases as a result of the materials used in tanneries, and ending with the psychological and social instability they suffer from as a result of being kept away from school," Saleh said.
Saleh said he hopes the film would participate in international festivals "as a form of addressing and the eradicating this phenomenon."
The 56-minute film will be screened at Abu Dhabi Film Festival and at a Spanish Festival.
"The film has a realistic flavour, as it draws from my personal experience when I was forced to work at the tender age of ten," Saleh said. "This robbed me of enjoying many aspects of my childhood and impacted me throughout the various stages of my life."
He said the film "is derived from a personal desire to rid child workers of the necessity of undergoing the same experience."