Suez Canal workers to strike until their demands are met

Yasmine Fathi , Wednesday 6 Apr 2011

Despite presenting their case to the minister of manpower, distrust and skewed working conditions ensure that striking workers will not relent until they are satisfied

Suez Canal workers vow to go on a hunger strike if their demands are not met, (Photos AP)

Thousands of workers from six companies affiliated to the Suez Canal Authority continue to strike for a fourth day. If their demands are not met in the next few days, they warn, they will begin a hunger strike.

The workers started to protest on 3 April. When their demands were not met, the protest escalated to a strike. Most of the workers are striking within their respective company’s headquarters, refusing to go home in the evening.

“And if our demands are not met, we will begin a hunger strike in the next few days,” says Ali Shaarawi, a member of the board of the Suez Maritime Arsenal Company, one of the striking companies that specializes in ship maintenance.

The workers also plan to move their protest to the Authority’s Guidance Office in Ismailiya and begin a strike there.

“All of us, from across three governorates, will go but we will leave 300 or 400 workers in front of every company so that the strike is as widespread as possible,” explains Shaarawi. The six companies are located in Suez, Ismailiya and Port Said.

The employees are demanding parity with their colleagues in the Suez Canal Authority. They also demand that the authority disregards Law 48 of 1978 which stipulates the conditions of workers in the public sector, one they believe is out of date and does not grant them their full rights.

Shaarawi says that there is a big gap between the conditions of the employees of the authority and those of the seven companies affiliated with it. He points out that in the authority, senior employees earn LE3,859, while their counterparts in the companies earn LE684. Additionally, there is no limit to how much can be spent on healthcare for authority employees and their family, while the amount is capped at LE12,000 for company employees. Authority employees are given housing units after three years of service and the companies do not offer accommodation. The discrepancy in retirement packages is vast with those offered by the authority varying between LE350,000 to 400,000, compared to LE7,000 to LE15,000 for company veterans.

The employees have tried everything to ensure that their demands are met, including appealing to the head of the authority, Admiral Ahmed Ali Fadl.

“We have been asking for these demands for about 25 years now and not only do they ignore us but the head of the authority refuses to even meet with us,” says Shaarawi.

He adds that on 9 February, the employees had begun a sit in and were informed by the authority that they will raise their income temporarily until they study their demands and see if they are feasible or not. This was followed by weeks of negotiations throughout which Fadl refused to meet with the workers. They sent a letter to senior army officials in Suez and another to Prime Minister Essam Sharaf asking for the demands to be met.

“And throughout this we kept warning them that if they don’t give us what we want, we will begin a strike on April 3 and they underestimated us, they underestimated the power of thousands of angry workers,” says Shaarawi.

The problem runs deep. Law 48 of 1978, which the workers want scrapped, has become a huge obstacle. Kamal Abbas, the general co-ordinator for the Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), says that the problem is that the law was replaced by Law 12 of 2003, which regulated both the public and private sector. However, it was not applied to every company, including those affiliated to the Suez Canal Authority.

“The difference between the two laws is massive in terms of payments and pay rises,” says Abbas. “For example, Law 12 says that employees can get a 7 per cent raise but Law 48 says that the raise depends on the worker’s salary and professional level.”

Additionally, says Abbas, many of these companies were built in the 60s during the Nasser era and were very productive, but, due to neglect and lack of upgrading, their productivity has declined and this has had an adverse effect on the employees.

“For example, they haven’t had their machines upgraded for years,” says Abbas. “So the authority would commission the work to other companies which means that the companies would suffer even more.”

On top of this, says Abbas, is the fact that these companies from a financial and administrative perspective, belong completely to the authority. Fadl, for example, hires the head of the boards and controls the internal regulations.

"But from a financial point of view, the employees of the company are treated very differently than those of the authority," says Abbas.

All these problems stirred the workers to begin their strike on 3 April, just as they had warned. On the same day, they were approached by Minister of Manpower and EmigrationAhmed El-Borei who met with representatives of the workers and was presented with three solutions to the crisis.

“The first option is that the seven companies are merged with the authority and Law 48 is disregarded, the second option is that they create unified by-laws which give us the same income, health care and pension packages as the authority employees and the third is that they increase our income,” says Nasser Othman, assistant treasurer of Arsenal.

With the employees refusing to budge, officials in the authority are starting to panic. There are currently five ships docked at Arsenal at the moment. Two of which, the Queen and Wadi El-Nil, are passenger ships that are ready and need the workers to return to the waters, but they have refused to do so. Othman says that early yesterday, the authority administration tried to urge the workers to work on the ships by telling them that they are headed to Libya to evacuate Egyptian nationals stuck in the country.

“The workers were ready to return to work when they heard it was for a national cause, but, when they asked around, they found out that the ships are not headed to Libya,” says Othman. “This made the workers even more furious and more adamant to continue the strike.”

An official in Arsenal, who preferred to remain anonymous, puts the workers refusal to move despite the promises don to the lack of trust that has accumulated over the last two decades.

“It’s like when the people in Tahrir kept saying Mubarak has to go even after he promised that he won’t run for another term in September,” the official says. “It’s the same scenario here; they won’t move unless they see evidence that their demands are met.”

The official added that the company used to give 75 per cent of its profit to the former president and the cabinet, with the rest divided among the ministry of finance and the company.

“In turn, this meant that the company had very little money to spend on its employees,” the official says.

Yesterday evening, the workers met with El Borei’s consultant again and the minister has also scheduled a meeting between himself and Fadl tomorrow at noon. The workers do not yet know if any of their representatives will be allowed to attend or not.

“We would like to be able to follow the negotiations,” says Sharaawi. “But either way, we aren't going anywhere until they show us that they have heard our voices.”

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