Thousands of workers at the Egyptian Iron & Steel factory in Helwan, south of Cairo, declared a partial strike on Monday.
The workers, who have been holding a sit-in since 26 November, decided to escalate after Metallurgical Industries Co, the holding company, did not respond to their demands to implement their delayed profit shares.
Workers did not opt for a full strike because if the factory's blast furnace were to be shut down, it would take three months to make it functional again.
The blast furnace will remain open during the strike, as will some steel production lines. Work in the workshops and on other production lines was suspended on Monday afternoon.
"The numbers of workers staying the night has increased and we have sealed the gates of the company," worker Ibrahim Mostafa told Ahram Online over the phone.
The protests were triggered by a delay in paying the annual profits owed to the workers by the general assembly of the company.
The workers explained to Ahram Online that the payment is not a true profit share, but rather part of their monthly salaries. The company subtracts the amount every month to pay it back to the workers later, in instalments in June and November. "We had just a small part of it in June, not half," said Mostafa Hassan, a young worker.
The workers are also demanding the dismissal of the CEO and the president of Metallurgical Industries, as well as the cancellation of punitive decisions against the leaders of the movement, the withdrawal of confidence from the company union, and investigation into alleged corruption within the company.
Egyptian Iron & Steel, once the biggest company in the public sector, has been in a stage of deterioration for some time. After a downturn in profits, the company reported huge losses in 2010 and 2011. Net losses were close to LE900 million during the financial year that ended in June 2013.
For the last two years only one blast furnace out of four has been operating at the factory, resulting in a substantial decrease in production. The company's vice-president, Ragab Abdel-Basset, says that a lack of liquidity had meant that the company did not buy enough coke to operate at full capacity. He gives the same reason for not paying the required profit shares.
The striking workers say that their working conditions have in recent months become as precarious as the company's situation. Two fatalities took place last month at the factory. One worker died in hospital after losing his leg when heavy equipment fell on him.
The second, a security guard, was shot dead by robbers last week. According to the workers, attacks by criminals and severe work accidents are becoming frequent.
In addition, workers have many complaints about the healthcare services and the transportation the company offers them. For the last two months they have not received their daily meal allowance and other in-kind benefits they used to receive.
Various kinds of allowances have become a customary tool used to supplement the low basic rates of pay that many Egyptian workers earn. For many workers, basic pay often comprises only a fraction of their take home income.
The number of Egyptian Iron & Steel workers has decreased from about 28,000 during the beginning of the 21st century to less than 12,000 at present, as a consequence of the government's early retirement programme.
The programme was a prelude for an announced privatisation of the company that never took place.
(Photo: Bassam EL-Zogahby)