Egypt's Suez canal workers defy their ‘arrogant gods’

Salma El-Wardani , Wednesday 6 Jul 2011

Labourers consider upping the ante in their 3-week strike at the critically strategic Suez Canal after negotiations with the canal authority 'gods' screech to a halt

Suez sit-in
Photo: Mai Shaheen

All his life Ahmed Ali wanted nothing more than a decent life and enough of a salary to cover the expenses of his five-member family. But because the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) has always been not only a national institution but untouchable as well, he kept silent.

“We used to feel we have a national role. We’re generating a lot of funds for our country,” says Ali, 52, one of around 2200 workers from the Suez canal shipyard protesting at a sit-in that has entered its 22nd day, demanding an end to unfair treatment and the administration's poor pay. 

“But when you’re feeling humiliated, down and so unappreciated, this feeling of romantic nationalism fades away and is replaced by anger and a bitter feeling of hatred,” adds Ali, as he stands with his blue overalls and eyes full of power and stiffness, against a wall with a big banner that reads: The worker is always right.

“That used to be: The customer is always right. But we changed it in February,” Ali says, “It can't work as a slogan with the revolutionary situation we’re living in.”

Customers here refer to some 60 big and medium sized vessels, annually docking at the Suez Shipyard Co. for maintenance and repair, one of seven companies under the Suez Canal Authority and one of Egypt's main foreign currency earners, generating $4.5 billion in 2009-2010.

Now that the sit-in, co-organised by all the seven affiliated companies under the Suez Canal Authority, enters its third week, five large vessels and a small yacht, which the workers say belong to the Egyptian telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris, are suspended, out of service and suffering huge losses.

“The Syrian owner of one vessel tried to bribe us with $100,000 to end our sit-in because he’s going to miss the sheep season, but we refused,” says 32-year-old technician Hamdy Saleh as he points to one of the huge ships in the company’s fleet. “That’s because we’re not ignorant, barbarians or naïve as they always portray us. We have rights and we will fight for them.”

The situation has been escalating in the seven Suez companies working under the SCA since 8 February, as they have been asking for better pay and working conditions and access to medical treatment and leisure facilities for high officials and engineers. The sit-in was suspended following promises from the government, hopeful at the time that they would contain a sweeping revolution. But nothing happened. Swiftly, they agreed to strike.

“On 8 June, members of the workers councils of the seven companies held an emergency meeting in which we agreed to start another, larger sit-in to stress on the demands, the longer it takes them to respond” says Ali Shaarawy, a spokesperson for the workers of the companies under SCA.

The angry SCA employees, who had been meeting twice a week on a regular basis, went on a sit-in starting with Port Said, Ismaillia and Suez, insisting on their demands. 

“On 26 June we added to our demands a 40 per cent increase in basic salary, 7 per cent bonus payments, an increase in the meal allowances and the resignation of Suez Canal Authority Chairman, Ahmed Fadel,” says Shaarawy.

The workers' demands were met with sweet nothings twice, once in April, and then in June. Workers inside the company have a video recording of Fadel, also known as the "arrogant god" among company workers, in which he promises to fulfill their demands. They are holding it as evidence against him.

“[He is] arrogant because he has participated in the 1973 war and is too proud of himself. We call him a  'god' because he still thinks he’s the pharaoh of the company because he’s worked here for 18 years,” says Saleh, “We have had enough pharaohs. Enough untouchables!”

The strong labour movement in Suez is not new to the governorate, known for its history of struggle. In 1952 the city witnessed the largest protest movement in its modern history, which developed into a guerrilla campaign against British forces in the Canal Zone that ran out of the government’s control. In 2011, the revolution erupted first in Suez district of El Arbaeen. In the early days of the revolution local media called it "the Egyptian Sidi Bouzeid," the place where the Tunisian revolution erupted.

“I can now tell you the revolution is not over. Everything is as it is, only the heads have been hunted but the body is still corrupt,” he says, pointing at the main gate of the company where a group of policemen stand at attention with their ears to the ground.

At the SCA's main entrance, policemen prevented employees and Ahram Online reporters from entering. When the workers defied the policemen and escorted the reporters in, the policemen tried to remind the workers that the police still control the labour unions. The employees responded that whole thing was out of the policemen's hands. But then, with a smile one policeman said “Ok, let them in to write a story and take photos that won’t be published.”

Later, thinking he wasn't being heard, the same policeman whispered to one of his colleagues: “We’ll call our men to prevent the story from seeing the light of day.”

“Haven’t I told you nothing has changed?" asks Saleh.

Inside the factory, however, it's clear how things have changed. “Does the SCA think we’re fools to tell us we need a law to consider workers' demands to be formulated inside the parliament?" asks Medhat Ghareeb,  a young worker leaning his back against an iron chipping machine, one of hundreds of machines that have been out of order since the beginning of the sit-in, "We know the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces can do it in a blink of an eye - just like when they issued the protest ban law overnight.”

Late in June, the SCA sent the workers a memo telling them that they cannot recognise the negotiations that took place between the workers, Fadel and Minister of Manpower Ahmed El-Boraie, because the seven companies were founded under law no. 30 of 1975, which does not recognise workers' right to negotiate.

In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, the director of the affiliated companies at the Suez Canal Authority said that the workers' protests were "unacceptable" because the authority is unable to issue new legislation in the current transitional phase to meet the workers' demands. 

"If they are basing their argument on that law, then we have a stronger base to stand on," says Saud Omar, an employee at the main canal authority and a member of the canal's workers syndicate, "This is an International Labor Organization convention, of which Egypt is a member, and which gives workers across the world the right to represent themselves."

Omar, also an activist, is one of the employees of the authority who, along with others, decided to stand in solidarity with the workers.

“Blue-collar workers are feeling discrimanted against by administration employees” says Omar "Why? Is that because we’re white collar and they wear blue overalls? Nonsense!”

According to Omar, while a blue-collar worker in the Suez shipyard gets anywhere from LE500 to LE1000 a month, employees at headquarters are paid LE1500 to LE3000 per month. Also, while shipyard workers take LE150 as a bonus every three months, authority employees get LE300. Meanwhile, he adds, the chairman's twelve consutants each get at least LE24,000 per month.

"They should know that the labour movement in Suez and elsewhere has been growing in size since 2008; They're more powerful, progressive and organised than any other official organisation," Omar notes.

According to Solidarity with Worker' s Rights in Egypt, a Solidarity Center report published in February 2010, more than 1.7 million workers have engaged in 1,900 strikes and other forms of protest from 2004 to 2008.

"Since 2008, Egyptian workers' voices have gotten even louder" the report reads, adding that the restrictive laws and other repressions have been ineffective at quelling workers' the protests demanding their their rights and democracy. 

Now that the angry workers at the Suez shipyard  are starting to run out of pressure tools, there is still a dangerous one that they haven’t used yet:

“On Wednesday we’ll escalate the situation by bringing our families to make the sit-in bigger,” says Sharawy. “Next, we will take an action against the strategic waterway,” he adds, pointing to the southern entrance of the canal, which has a unique strategic location that attracts many transiting ships for repairs.

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