Sunday, May 15, 2011

Letters from Egypt: Child Labor

One thing that I always discuss on my blog is the way my attitude has changed after living abroad, and my view point on child labor is one of the greatest examples I can provide. There is a difference between sweatshops which imply forced labor and child labor.

Sweatshops refer to unacceptable conditions with often a very dangerous work environment, long hours which do not coincide with the pay scale and could also overlook standard child labor laws. Child labor refers to children under 16 years of age working to help support their families, mostly from poorer countries. UNICEF estimates that 158 million children from 5-14 are currently employed, representing one in six children in the world. Naturally, child labor can also come with its negative connotations, but for the purposes of this blog entry, I want to highlight a different view than what we normally think about.

I recently returned to Cairo from a week in Shanghai, China and immediately hit the ground running. I ended up going to the Sakkara pyramids for the first time. Once we left the pyramids, we stopped by a carpet weaving school where we were given a private tour. This tour was free as the carpet company likes to show others what goes into making Egyptian carpets and their overall process. My friends and I made jokes that we were going to a child labor camp and then our guide said, “I want to take you to see the kids weaving.” We all looked at each other wondering if we’d heard correctly.

We saw the silk worms and how the silk is harvested for these carpets and then the different steps. We went to where the young girls were weaving and were amazed at what we saw. First of all, children 10 years of age audition for particular schools (there are various carpet schools in the area). Normally these applicants are from families that have been carpet makers for years. The children shadow more experienced makers for two years, two hours a day twice a week and make LE 15 (about $2.50).

At night, the children are sent to school, paid for by the carpet company while still earning their wages. This particular school takes 140 children each year after various tests to pick the most talented. The guide said, “We try to pick those that have talent and can replicate a pattern, but can also add their own touch.” After the training is over, workers earn LE 40 (almost $7) an hour with commission being divvied among all employees for any carpet sold at the center.

This size carpet as viewed from the back takes up to 14 years to complete
My apartment came with these types of carpets and I rolled them up and placed them in my spare room because I thought they were ugly. However, this experience gave me a great appreciation. To weave 1 sq meter takes about two months. A carpet that has 3,000 sq meters will take around 14 years to complete (silk costing $85,000). The knots are so intrinsic and requires a great deal of skill – which goes back to my initial point.

Living in the US, I would be mortified about hearing that companies like Walmart were forcing children in third world countries to make products that we take for granted. However, watching these girls demonstrate how to make this knot, they were proud of their work. They were excited to show off so to speak. It goes back to the fact that many times we think because it is illegal to work in the US until you are 16 years of age that this should be applied across the board. Newsflash: what works for us doesn’t work for others.

These children at this particular school were happy because this is once again a very specialized skill. In addition, their families have carried on this tradition for God only knows how long. This is a very proud thing for them which is the difference between sweatshops and child labor. Many children who are from poorer countries want to work to help out their families, and you can’t fault others in this particular circumstance. What you have to realize and appreciate is that many of us were lucky not to have to resort to this, but just because we didn’t grow up in such an environment doesn’t mean that we can easily chastise company owners or families for having their children work.

No I do not condone poor factory conditions or the unfair treatment of workers, so don’t misconstrue this entry. However, I think that many of us need to realize that the world consists of more than just what is in our backyard. You never know someone’s life until you try to walk a mile in their shoes.

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