Sunday, February 22, 2009

No More Egyptian Cotton For Me!!


I am ashamed to say that is one story I was unaware of until just yesterday. I sleep on Egyptian cotton sheets and have for a long time. They are the height of luxury in my mind and in many others' minds as well. No longer!! There will no longer be any Egyptian cotton bought in my home. I will not sleep on the backs of children.

Zawyat al-Kardsha: A cotton farming family headed by Shaban Abdal Zaher, (third from left). His children work in the family fields. He made £50 from his cotton last year. Photo courtesy Robin Hammond.

This is the decrepit mud and brick home that Shaban Abdulal Zarhel and his family call home. Most of us would call it a hovel. This family is representative of Egyptian cotton farmers. The mother is fussing with the youngest. She is pregnant and they are hoping for another boy. Beside her, her four other children sleep off their exhaustion from their morning labours and try to recharge their tiny bodies with enough energy for the afternoon’s trials. By 2:00 pm (after the hottest part of the day has passed), the children will have arisen and had a tiny meal of rice and flatbread. After that, it’s back to the cotton fields for the afternoon shift. Due to the intense heat - 40°C (104°F) – the children work split shifts working the cooler morning and evening times.

The children’s lives revolve around the cycles of the harvests here: radishes in winter, onions in spring, and Egyptian cotton in summer and fall. There is no time for school. Between working their family’s own small landholding and hiring out to other landholders to earn disposable income, there is little time left for anything else.

When it is cotton season the fields on the banks of the Nile will be filled with children working up to 10 hours a day. They are usually employed to remove the boll weevils from the cotton plants. This means they are constantly handling plants that are awash with pesticides. Most of the children complain of breathing difficulties during the height of summer.

Today, there are an estimated 2.7 m children working across Egypt, the majority in agriculture. More than 1 m children are hired yearly for the cotton harvest with nearly all children reporting beatings by foremen in the fields.

Most Non-government organizations (NGOs) say that erasing child labour in Egyptian agriculture will be impossible as it is traditionally an issue between families; it appears more likely the children are victims of modern-day press gangs who pay their impoverished parents a pittance for their labour.

Egyptian cotton has become a byword for luxury with no five-star hotel in London or Manhattan complete without starched sheets from the Nile Valley on its beds. In Britain alone, the cotton business, from sheets to Savile Row clothing, is worth billions.

Cotton has a long and not-so-illustrious history. It may have existed in Egypt as early as 12,000 BC. It has successfully been cultivated in the Nile Delta for at least 7,000 years due to rich soil and a perfect climate. It was brought to Europe by Arab merchants about 800 AD. In 1492 when Columbus found America, he also found cotton growing in the Bahamas. Cotton found its way to England two centuries later.

While everyone is aware of the inhumane history of cotton, slavery and the Americas; not many people (I was one of them) are aware of the inhumane history of cotton, near slavery and Egypt.

Mohammed Ramadan, eight, with one of the worms children are employed to pick off cotton leaves. Photo courtesy of Robin Hammond.

It's cotton season and children are everywhere, on hands and knees, searching for the tiny insects and worms that threaten the crop. Their job is to remove them.

Ahmed Khaled, 10, begins his day at 6:00 am harvesting onions before moving into the cotton fields at 8:00 am. He says, “We work up to eight hours a day. This is the hardest time, keeping the cotton safe when the sun is at its hottest. The harvest is easier – the hours are hard; but, the weather is cooler. I cannot read or write. We go to school when we can; but, we cannot afford to. School is for rich children.”

Huge, huge issue. More next blog.

1 comment:

kathi said...

Glad you'll be blogging on this more. My first thought is that if the market for their crop is minimized, they will have no income. I'm also reminded of how little the majority of the planet's population lives on and how, in the US, we were grew out of the same situation in the last century when family farms covered the country.Educate me, dear P.