Silver Faces

Over the past fifty years Mit Ghamr has been transformed from an agricultural city to a huge industrial hub. At the heart of the Egyptian Delta thousands of farmers left their plots to join the thriving new industry of making aluminum pots.

The faces of workers, including children, are turned silver after long hours in the aluminum workshops and factories. Most of the polishing workshops are narrow and the air is full of aluminum particles in dust or powder form, which may collect in the eyes causing local tissue destruction. The particles may also cause nodular lung fibrosis, according to a study published by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Ministry.

An official who monitors environmental and safety conditions said: “Everyone in this city has worked sometime in these workshops.” The same was said by the head of health administration of Mit Ghamr, “I became a doctor thanks to polishing workshops. I worked there to save up money for studying in the university.” Not everyone is that lucky.

There are many big factories, but most of the polishing workshops operate in the informal sector that characterizes economic life in poor neighborhoods. According to the aluminum manufacturers’ association, Mit Ghamr has four hundred shaping and polishing workshops and controls sixty percent of the industry in Egypt. Roughly forty to fifty thousand people are employed in these workshops.

Over a span of two years of visiting Mit Ghamr, I met child workers on their first day of working, and then met them after a year when they became accustomed to silver dust and long hours. Their smiles never disappeared but they left their schools early and became responsible for complete families.

Most of the workers I met are convinced that the polishing process is dangerous, but they had to work and earn money. Workers believe they can limit the health hazards by drinking milk and honey, but most of them decide to quit this job, especially the polishing process, by the age of thirty. They said that their lungs would be destroyed if they continued.

The big factories refused to let me take photos of child workers because they know it’s illegal. On the other hand, the small workshops were very helpful. The polishing process depends on child workers since they are paid less and work for long hours in narrow and over-heated rooms. Government oversight of these factories and workshops is loose and the official observers are convinced that families need their children to work there. An official said, “They’re poor and need money. Why should we chase them?!”