"For the children here, education is a luxury their parents cannot afford. Instead their days are regulated by the harvests: radishes in winter, onions in spring, and Egyptian cotton in summer and autumn. In the next month the fields that cling to the banks of the Nile will be full of children working the cotton for up to 10 hours a day. Perhaps most alarming is the nature of
their work – removing the bollworm, the cotton farmers' nemesis, and handling plants drenched in pesticides. Accurate health studies are thin on the ground here, but many of the children complain of breathing difficulties at the height of summer.
Drive across Egypt and you will see children working everywhere. In rural street cafes they serve tea to farmers, on building sites they carry heavy limestone bricks. Though the issue has traditionally been ignored, the focus on their plight has grown in recent years. Today, an estimated 2.7m children work across the country, the majority in agriculture, with more than 1m hired each year for the cotton harvest, during which they work long hours in 40C heat. Increasingly, though, there is no school time in between. In a recent Unicef survey, nearly all children asked reported beatings by foremen in the fields.
According to most NGOs, eradicating child labour in agriculture in Egypt would be impossible, as it is traditionally an issue between families. But our investigation in the Nile Valley has found that the children are more likely to be victims of modern-day gangmasters, who recruit them from impoverished families to work the fields from dawn until dusk.
In the west, Egyptian cotton has become a byword for luxury. No five-star hotel in central London or downtown Manhattan is complete without starched white sheets from the Nile Valley on its beds. Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Habitat, Ikea, even Tesco now carry luxury Egyptian cotton ranges. Then there are the ubiquitous Egyptian cotton towels. In Britain alone the cotton
business, from sheets to high street clothing, is worth billions."