Suez Shipyard workers held a sit-in for the third consecutive day on Thursday after shipyard management referred 30 workers to investigation for entering a company club reserved for managers.
Striking workers on Thursday closed the gates of the shipyard in an effort to ban managers from entering.
"The management asked for the names of those workers taking part in the sit-in after working hours, most probably to punish them," striker Mahmoud Allam told Ahram Online. "Then the management came to negotiate – this is inconsistent."
The problem began after some 40 workers entered a club run by the Suez Canal Authority, to which only those employees holding university degrees are admitted.
"Workers have the right to enter only one club, while other employees – fewer in number – enjoy access to five different clubs," Allam said. "They let us in; it was very peaceful."
Later on, however, 30 of the workers who had entered the club were referred to investigation, a move that angered the Suez Shipyard's roughly 500 workers.
Workers believe that the company discriminates against manual labourers, a legacy, they say, that was inherited from the era of French control over Egypt's Suez Canal. Access to the clubs, workers allege, is only one aspect of this discrimination.
"We cannot use the same buses [as managers] under any circumstances and the health care we get isn't the same," Allam said.
He added that many workers lack access to company residences even though the employees' housing area contains numerous empty houses.
"But the administration won't allow workers to stay in these houses. It is almost an apartheid system," Allam said.
On Thursday, the head of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) met with members of the ship workers' trade union to open negotiations.
"Administrators told us that they would improve workers' healthcare and the quality of workers' residences," Saud Omar, member of the SCA's workers union, told Ahram Online.
"They also said they would look into the club issue, but we received only promises and no official decision," Omar said.
SCA officials, for their part, could not be reached for comment on the issue.
Workers, meanwhile, say they plan to continue their sit-in on Sunday.
Labour action in companies based on the Suez Canal tends to be closely monitored by the government, with the army – rather than police – traditionally dealing with labour-related disputes.