Each day, 14-year-old Ali Abdel-Nasser works at a brick factory on the outskirts of Cairo, loading a donkey cart with new bricks to be taken to a nearby furnace to dry. He has worked at the plant almost every day the last four years, since age 10 when his father died.
Responsible for a family of seven, the boy is bitter that even the donkeys at the factory get more time off than he does.
"The owners of the factory give the animals two days off," Ali said. "But I cannot afford to rest. If I did, nobody is going to bring bread for my family."
As Egypt struggles with rising food prices and inflation, the plight of poverty-stricken child workers and the lack of protections for them has gained new attention.
The country's parliament is looking into measures to comply with international conventions to protect children from ill-treatment and hazardous employment, such as with chemicals and pesticides. But as food prices grow, the incidence of children working is almost certain to grow as large and poor families struggle to cope, aid groups and experts say.
More than 20 percent of Egypt's 76 million people live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. The government subsidizes some food and other staples but has struggled to keep up with demand for subsidized bread and other foods as world wheat and other food prices have skyrocketed.
Hundreds of children are thought to work at the string of almost 200 small brick factories in the Arab Jbour area, about 50 kilometers south of Cairo, said Salah Waheeb, who works for a British charity that looks after animals at the factories, called Brooke Hospital for Animals.
The children earn an average of about 25 Egyptian pounds (US $4.50) a day to load donkey carts to carry the new, wet bricks first to a drying area, and then to a furnace.
Several of the child workers in the area, interviewed by an Associated Press reporter on a recent trip, said they had sometimes been beaten with wooden switches by foremen at the factories, if the foremen thought the children were going too slowly in their work.
No foremen would agree to be interviewed. But human rights groups and outside experts say conditions for working children can vary greatly across Egypt - from factories that provide meals and some basic schooling, to those that work children long hours, often in scorching heat, and abuse or beat them.
Countrywide statistics on the number of working children are almost impossible to gather.
"It's hard to get data, and the given ones do not usually separate between working children and street children in Egypt," said Siham Ibraheem, the head of the Tofoulti Organization, a local charity that looks after street children.
"This is a catastrophic issue that the government and all the public and international organizations must look at with serious concerns," he said.
The government has no official statistics on how many children work at factories or other jobs nationwide. But its latest statistics set the number of street children, between the ages 6 and 17, at about 1.5 million.
In large cities like Cairo, it is common to see children as young as age 5 dodging cars to try sell gum, flowers, tissue paper or trinkets to cars waiting at red lights. Many of those working children, in contrast with the factory child workers, have no families or have run away and live on the streets.
An official at the National Center for Criminal and Social Research said the country has fewer than 30 public shelters for street children or other poor children and about 160 private shelters. Police often arrest those trying to sell on the streets, if they are considered vulnerable to delinquency and put them in shelters, where they often again run away. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Nine-year-old Abdel Moti exemplifies the reasons why some very young children in Egypt end up working.
Abdel, the youngest child seen working at one brick factory near Arab Jbour, said he has worked at the plant since age 8, driving a donkey cart each day. He earns about 20 Egyptian pounds (US $3.60) a day to help his mother, who works as a house maid. Often the money the boy makes goes to pay for medicines for his paralyzed father.
Abdel said he has no regrets about leaving school to work, because this way he can earn money.
"Here they pay me, and I can help my family," the boy said.
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