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Care What You Wear

Children Keep Egypt's Cotton Spinning


Bill Radke: The drive to increase American exports may get a little help from the weather. The U.S. is the world's biggest supplier of cotton, and this wet spring and dry summer should make it a good year for cotton growers here. Now, when it comes to the best cotton in the world, that is another matter. As you know, it is the phrase "Egyptian cotton" on a towel or a sheet that will automatically raises the price. And who's doing the hard work of harvesting Egypt's precious cotton?

Reporter Julia Simon tells us in many cases it's children.

 Mohammad speaking in Arabic

Julia Simon: Sixty miles south of Cairo, the desert gives way to the fertile agricultural oasis of Al-Fayoum. I met 13-year-old Mohammed there, and he took me into the cotton fields. He stoops over to show me the plant's yellow flowers.

 Mohammed, in Arabic: Huwwa el otton, huwwa...

Cotton picking doesn't begin until the end of the summer, so now is the time for maintenance of the crop -- pulling weeds and picking worms off the plants. Mohammad, who's worked the fields since he was 10, says he sprays the plants with a backpack full of pesticide.

 Mohammed: When the plant is little, we spray it because of the worms and weeds and stuff. We put the pesticide on our backs and we walk like this.

He makes the sound of spraying and he and his friends laugh. Mohammad wasn't the youngest child I met here.

 Brince, Arabic: Ismy Brince. Andi khamza.

Five-year-old Brince began cleaning weeds from the cotton when he was four. He makes a little under a dollar for a few hours of labor.

Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch says when children work in agriculture...

 Zama Coursen-Neff: They may be working long hours in the hot sun without enough water to drink. They often do the same motions over and over again and children may develop back pain, neck pain, wrist pain -- the complaints of a much older adult.

When I told Coursen-Neff about Mohammad spraying the pesticide on the cotton, she said that was very disturbing.