Labor unrest from north to south

Thousands of workers across the country are protesting against what they call unfair employment with a spate of industrial actions that have picked up steam in recent weeks.

Protests have been concentrated at the Suez Canal Authority, at hotels and resorts in the Red Sea town of Sharm el-Sheikh, the Shebin al-Kom Textiles Company in Monufiya, the state-owned Petrotrade Company in Alexandria and a fertilizer company in the Upper Egyptian City of Assiut.

In Suez, 2,000 workers employed by companies affiliated with the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) have been holding sit-in protests and partial strikes for close to two weeks.

Labor protests have been ongoing since December 8 at six out of the seven subsidiary companies that are administratively — but not financially — managed by the SCA. These subsidiary maritime companies offer the SCA services including maintenance, transport, roping and docking.

Workers have staged partial strikes and sit-ins to protest low wages and insufficient bonuses, demanding parity with employees directly employed by the SCA.

“There are clear discrepancies between working conditions and incomes at the SCA and those of the seven affiliated companies,” argues Seoud Omar, a fulltime SCA employee living in Suez City. “There are even discrepancies among these seven companies — some generate profits, while others incur losses. This translates into several different pay-scales for employees along the Suez Canal.”

Omar says he stands in solidarity with workers protesting in Suez and the rest of the nation, but “parity remains a difficult goal to realize for all these workers in these different companies.”

SCA officials are currently in negotiations with the strikers and protesting workers in the hopes of reaching a settlement. Trade union organizer Galal al-Gizawy, who works for the Canal Port Company in Ismailia City, hopes the negotiations will take into consideration the concerns and demands of the subsidiary company employees, such as a unified pay-scale.

“We are seeking to suspend the strikes and protests,” he explains, “but we are also demanding complete parity with our fellow employees at the SCA.”

Senior employees at the subsidiary companies can earn up to LE3,000 a month, Gizawy says, but a worker doing the same job at the same level for the SCA can earn up to LE15,000, and “that’s not to mention the regular bonuses, housing compensation, medical care, and access to sporting clubs and other benefits granted to fulltime SCA employees,” says Gizawy.

Workers in Sharm el-Sheikh have also been protesting, but their complaints are different — they’re fighting against mass layoffs at hotels and resorts as the tourism infrastructure there massively retracts.

Tourism in the coastal city was hard-hit after a Russian Metrojet airplane crashed in the Sinai Peninsula on October 31 shortly after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh Airport. Red Sea tourism has reportedly incurred losses of LE2 billion a month after tourists fled Sharm in the wake of the crash and Russia banned direct flights to and from Egypt, Egyptian Tourism Authority chief Samy Mahmoud told the privately owned daily Al-Shorouk. Russia claims the tragedy was caused by a terrorist attack perpetrated by Sinai-based militants.

Around 30 percent of Sharm’s workforce has been let go since the disaster, Tourist Guides Syndicate Treasurer Ahmed Hassan told Al-Shorouk.

Tourism workers are reportedly now filing complaints with the Manpower Ministry claiming they were fired illegally. Hotel managers have allegedly claimed their hotels needed to undergo renovation as a pretext to lay off the workers, and shut down several wings of their establishments, while other hotels have closed altogether. Many of those that remain open are on the verge of bankruptcy.

The mass layoffs in Sharm are triggering fears of increased unemployment rates across Egypt, particularly in the tourism sector.

Workers in Qalyubia are also unhappy. Since Tuesday, dozens workers have been protesting over their unpaid wages in front of the gates of public-sector Egyptian Dredging Company located in the town of Abu Zaabal, the privately owned news site Al-Bawaba reported. They say they haven’t been paid in two months.

And at the Shebin al-Kom Textiles Company in Monufiya, the entire workforce of 1,500 people has been on strike for four days to demand the payment of overdue bonuses, better wages and management changes. In addition, a group of former Shebin al-Kom Textile workers who say they were punitively fired or pushed into early retirement have been conducting their own protests for over a week to demand their jobs back.

Workers were galvanized to escalate their protest actions into a full-scale strike when the company’s security guards allegedly physically assaulted and injured several protesting workers last Saturday, the privately owned Al-Watan newspaper and Veto news site reported.

“Everyday for the past eight days, we have been protesting, rallying and demanding reinstatement in our company,” says Shimy. “Despite a court order for our reinstatement in 2011, we have not received any notifications or any proposals for our reinstatement.”

In addition, “we are demanding accountability for the administrative board,” says fired worker Ragab al-Shimy, “as well as the necessary investments to return our company to its original productive capacity, as opposed to the nearly 50 percent capacity at which it is now working.”

Previously a public-sector company, the Shebin al-Kom Textile Company was privatized almost 10 years ago when it was sold to the Indonesian-based Indorama Textiles Company. After workers filed lawsuits claiming the company was sold at below-market value, the Indonesian investors began divesting and firing workers en masse. The company’s production dramatically deteriorated under these conditions.

In 2011, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the company was sold for less than its real value and ordered that it return to the management of the state-owned Holding Company for Textile Industries. The court also ordered the new managers to reinstate workers who had been fired or pushed into early retirement under the Indonesian owners.

In Alexandria, some 12,000 workers at the state-owned petroleum services company Petrotrade have been on strike for the past 10 days as they demand their profit shares, which they say have only been distributed to top administrative board members, the privately owned Al-Tahrir news site reported.

The striking workers are based in 56 centers and offices across the governorate, Al-Shorouk reported. They have allegedly declined the company’s offer to implement a new profit-sharing agreement by March 15 if they suspend their strike.

Workers have held several strikes and protests at Petrotrade’s different branches nationwide over the past five years, but the majority have been in Cairo. The wave of worker dissatisfaction only recently spread to the Alexandria branches.

In Upper Egypt, workers reportedly occupied the Assiut Fertilizer Company factory on Wednesday to protest the administrative board’s decision to dock 25 percent of their wages. These deductions came just days after administrators established a new educational evaluation and placement system, according to Al-Watan.

Meanwhile, doctors working at hospitals belonging to the state-owned Health Insurance Authority have been protesting since early last week to demand parity with their colleagues employed by Health Ministry hospitals, which would include improved wages, benefits and working conditions.

The Doctors Syndicate planned a protest outside their downtown Cairo headquarters on Saturday to show solidarity with the protesting doctors, reported the state-owned Al-Ahram. The physicians are reportedly planning to escalate their protest actions if their demands are not met.

A list of these demands was sent to the Health Insurance Authority as well as the Cabinet, and the official responses — or lack thereof — will likely determine the doctors’ future course of action.

Jano Charbel 

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