An estimated 4,000 workers carried a sit-in at the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company’s headquarters in Helwan into its second day on Monday to protest the state’s decision to liquidate the storied public sector company.
According to a source who participated in the sit-in, workers occupied the company’s headquarters for several hours on Monday, bolstered by the night shift, as well as a number of workers from the next day’s shift.
“Workers are only asking for the government to withdraw its decision to liquidate the company. No party, be it the syndicate committee or otherwise, has discussed any compensation [for layoffs after the liquidation] with us, and, in turn, none of us have asked for any compensation negotiation,” the worker told Mada Masr on Monday.
The decision to liquidate Egyptian Iron and Steel — once a driver for Egypt’s post-independence state industrial sector and the site of a 1989 sit-in that won unprecedented gains for Egypt’s labor movement — was made final in a speech by the chair of the Metallurgical Industries Holding Company Mohamed al-Saadawy at an exceptional general assembly meeting on January 11.
The sit-in continued into its second day on Monday, despite General Syndicate for Metal Industries Head Khaled al-Fiqy telling the privately owned Al-Mal news outlet on Sunday that he had convinced the workers to disband and wait for further news as to whether the House of Representatives will oppose the liquidation decision.
In a video posted to social media on Monday, a worker can be seen standing amid a crowd asking those gathered “Did you not do your jobs? And you over there, did you not do your job?”
“We demand that the company remain operational. It’s not our responsibility to manage the company. What we’re responsible for is the job we were given. We have a job, and we do it, and if we’re negligent, we’re penalized. So if management were negligent, a worker shouldn’t be responsible for their negligence. A worker isn’t responsible for the company,” the worker in the video says. “I haven’t gone home since yesterday. Here you have a house and outside you have a house, but outside you will stay in your house in humiliation.”
Of the estimated 7,500 workers employed by Egyptian Iron and Steel, the Center for Trade Union & Workers Services put the number participating in the sit-in at 4,000. According to a statement released by the union, security forces had been stationed at the gate separating the company from the workers’ housing units on Sunday in order to prevent workers from joining the sit-in. Mada Masr could not independently confirm this development.
Opposition has mounted since the decision to liquidate the company was taken last week. On Sunday in the House of Representatives, independent MP Diaa Eddin Daoud added his voice to calls made by MP Mostafa Bakry the day before, demanding the decision be canceled in order to explore alternative development plans.
The worker participating in the sit-in said that “Fiqy met with us and announced his support for us.” A member of the trade union committee of the company, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that the committee supports the workers in their sit-in, as long as the sit-in does not escalate to stall production.
But as of right now, “neither the protests nor any possible intervention from MPs has resulted in the government going back on the liquidation decision, so the committee will seek to appeal the decision of the general assembly, based on Chair of the Metallurgical Industries Holding Company Mohamed al-Saadawy’s refusal to discuss the decision in the assembly at the time and ignoring a memo from the trade union committee regarding how to save the company from its financial missteps,” according to the trade union committee member.
Fiqy told Mada Masr over the weekend that Tuesday may be key in determining whether the decision will go ahead, as the general syndicate, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation and Egyptian Iron and Steel Company’s board of directors are to hold an emergency meeting to review an alternative plan for the company’s renovation and development that has been put forward by the syndicate.
However, Public Business Sector Minister Hisham Tawfiq has dismissed the notion that the state would back down from its decision. In an interview with pro-state TV host Ahmed Moussa on Saturday, Tawfiq said he is “100 percent comfortable” with the decision to shut down the company and that there wasn’t even a 1 percent chance to save it. He added that the “biggest consultant in the world confirmed that there was no way to develop the Egyptian Iron and Steel factory in Helwan.”
Following Tawfiq’s comments, the government issued a statement on Sunday, outlining what it described as “attempts by the ministry and the Metallurgical Industries Holding Company to save the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company from its missteps” as opposed to denying the effect of the liquidation of the company would have on the market, where its production represents “less than 1 percent of the market share,” according to the government statement.
The government’s statement added that the decision was taken in line with all regulatory bodies and aims to “preserve workers’ rights.”
The Metallurgical Industries Holding Company, which belongs to the Public Enterprise Ministry, owns more than 83 percent of the Egyptian Iron and Steel’s shares, while the rest are divided among a number of investors, associations, banks and individuals.
While the government has consistently attributed the company’s liquidation to huge losses and infeasibility of resuming production, a trade union committee member previously told Mada Masr that the disregarded memo had included a proposal to halt losses while paying off over a period of two years the debt the company has accumulated.
The company registered losses of LE982.83 million in 2020. Yet, the sum represented a 35 percent reduction in losses year-on-year, while a large portion of its standing debts has been cleared by selling off unused plots of land.
The decision to liquidate the company’s factory operations in Helwan follows a back-and-forth between worker representatives and shareholders that has made its way through the courts.
The Egyptian Iron and Steel Company’s board of directors had worked over recent years on a development plan to increase the concentration of iron ore that is extracted from the company’s quarries and mines in cooperation with a Ukrainian company with the hopes of improving overall productivity. Initial talks in 2018 included the former head of the holding company and Tawfiq.
However, a member of the General Union of Engineering, Metal and Electrical Workers told Mada Masr in September that the Metallurgical Industries Holding Company had chosen instead to go ahead with plans to break up Egyptian Iron and Steel, looking to close its main factory operations in Helwan and transfer its quarrying and mining activity to a new corporate entity. A general assembly was convened in November to set the decision in motion despite legal contestation from the firm’s trade union committee and other worker representatives.
The value of shares in Egyptian Iron and Steel Company has plunged 27 percent over three trading sessions since the liquidation decision was announced, with trading halted multiple times due to the volume of losses.