A truck carrying up to 120 girls and boys to harvest cotton on a state-owned farm overturned and toppled into a canal Tuesday, killing 29 of the young laborers as rescuers tried in vain to save them, police and hospital officials said.
More than 50 children were injured, two critically.
The accident, on a bumpy dirt road 75 miles north of Cairo, underscored the sensitive issue of child labor in Egypt, where according to some estimates as many as 12 million children are put to work, mainly in agriculture.
The children were crowded onto the back of an open truck traveling near the village of Masheer at midmorning when the driver lost control, spilling the truck and his passengers into one of the steep-banked drainage canals that criss-cross the rich croplands of the Nile Delta.
Villagers jumped into the waterway to try to save the children and were able to pull several from the truck. Many were trapped, however, and drowned.
The driver, who was uninjured, was being questioned by police. The truck belonged to Egypt’s Agriculture Ministry, and the fields where the victims were to work are government-owned, the Interior Ministry said, wire services reported.
While a police report said the youngest child killed was 14, shaken physicians at the hospital where the victims were taken said that at least two of them were only 11.
“The accident was horrible. There wasn’t much for us to do,” said Dr. Abdulla Amer, deputy director of the Kafr el-Sheikh General Hospital.
According to UNICEF, 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are working in developing countries around the world.
In an effort to protect its children from abuses, Egypt raised the legal working age from 12 to 14 in 1996 and required that children be limited to six-hour shifts. But the law is rarely enforced, and it is not uncommon for children to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, during the harvest season, according to child advocacy groups here.
Their labor costs as little as 60 cents a day, about a third of what adult laborers command. Typically, children help their farm-laborer parents or are hired out to middlemen, with their wages then paid directly to their parents.