A regular day for the working women of Ezbet Boghdady in Egypt’s Sharqeya governorate starts at sunrise. They wake early to go to the fields, tending to crops or collecting the harvest.
For some, that field is just a few steps from their homes. For others, it’s several miles, in which case they have to wait for a pick-up truck that carries them and other farmers to a field that is otherwise inaccessible.
“The condition of women who work in the agricultural sector is not separate from the general condition of working women in the society,” Mona Ezzat, a researcher at the New Woman Foundation, told MENASource.
“They are considered cheap labor and they get paid less than men,” she continued.
Minimal Legal Protections for Women
Fatima Ramadan, a researcher at the Centre for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance says that Egyptian labor laws do include legal protections for most women. These laws take into consideration issues such as maternity leave and insurance. But the punishment for employers who break the law is a nominal fine ranging from 100 EGP (5.6 USD) to 200 EGP (11. 3 USD).
“If a woman needs to take maternity leave, her employer can just fire her and pay a small fine,” Ramadan said.
Work-place discrimination and wage gaps affect women working in a wide range of sectors and industries in Egypt, but women who work in the informal sector are more prone to mistreatment than their counterparts in the governmental and private sectors.
“There is class discrimination alongside the gender discrimination,” Ramadan said.
This is especially the case for women farmers who are the only group specifically exempt from legal protection. Article 97 of Egypt’s unified labor law creates an exception for women working in the agricultural field, stating that the section detailing the protection of women’s rights does not apply to them.
Abdallah Ismail, a researcher in the field of Environment and Rural Development, told MENASource that women make up a significant part of the farming sector, to the point that the industry depends on them.
Despite this, Ismail says they have “no legal protection, no social protection and no health insurance.” According to Ismail, Egyptian labor laws have never recognized or acknowledged the women who work in the agricultural sector.
Consequences of a Lack of Legal Protections
Eid Hawas, the official spokesperson for Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture, said, “Women’s labor in agriculture is often a result of poverty and economic crisis. Women need to work because the family needs more income.”
“Women working in the farming sector have for decades been considered domestic workers,” Ezzat told MENASource.
According to Ezzat that this has left women in the field susceptible to exploitation. Since Egypt’s wave of privatizations in the 1990s, Ezzat said many men were replaced by women because they were paid lower wages.
Due to the lack of legal protections, Ismail said, employers are able to get away with paying women less than the minimum wage. Sometimes they are not paid in cash. Instead, he says, they are given 10 to 20 kilograms of produce as a substitute for their wages.
They are also more susceptible to mistreatment, and in some cases sexually harassment, by landowners.
“They have absolutely no form of protection or health insurance, even though a lot of the work they do can be dangerous,” she said, citing the practice of women crowding in pick-up trucks to get to the field.
Ramadan also said that the heavy weights the women carry can lead to premature health problems.
According to Ismail “If they are injured at the workplace or are abused in any way, they cannot go file a case at the police station easily—especially since they do not have a working contract,” Ismail said.
Another way in which women working in agriculture face a form of discrimination is within the framework of the family. “They farm on their husbands’ land and gather the families’ harvest and they do this for no wages.”
“And if asked, this woman would not say she is employed because she doesn’t technically consider this work,” Ezzat said.
“Without these women, this country’s agricultural production would be very low, especially since for crops, such as wheat, there may only be two or three weeks for harvesting,” Ismail said.
“This relies primarily on women farmers,” he continued.
For the women of Ezbet Boghdady, agricultural work is part and parcel of their lives. They have grown up with it and will pass it down to their daughters, despite the difficulties.
Sherine, one of the farmers, says: “There are women in all of the farms and there are no fields without women. Women are ones working the land,” and they are the ones carrying Egypt’s meals on their shoulders.
Jihad Abaza is a freelance journalist and anthropologist in Egypt.