Egypt Crystal Asfour workers reject labour agreement
Marwa Hussein, Thursday 21 Nov 2013
Crystal Asfour workers to continue strike following failed manpower ministry negotiations

A strike at the Crystal Asfour factories in north Cairo's Shubra entered its eleventh day on Thursday, after workers rejected an agreement with Egypt's manpower ministry.

Workers say the agreement does not respond to their main demands, which include permanent contracts for temporary workers, a wage increase, and the reinstatement of sacked workers.

"They responded to other demands, but not the main ones. The ministry has guaranteed that no worker will be sacked until the end of December, but what will happen after that?" asked Hussein Zaki, a worker at Crystal Asfour.

Egyptian media gave contradictory reports about the strike on Wednesday, with some saying that the workers had accepted the agreement and ended their protest.

According to officials at the manpower ministry, the workers' representatives have signed the agreement.

"Only two of the workers' representatives did not sign, saying that they had to consult with their colleagues first. However, I believe the agreement offers many advantages, save the issue of end-of-service compensation," said Abdel-Khaleq Farouk, an advisor to the manpower minister.

"We signed what we believed was the meeting minutes, however we stated that we could not sign the agreement because it does not respond to the main demands," Zaki countered.

The workers insist on permanent contracts that would protect them from expected layoffs. Zaki says that the company has brought in new equipment that would considerably reduce the number of workers needed.

"We cannot guarantee such a demand, as the labor law does not obligate company owners to do so. Our job is to enforce the law," said Farouk.

"The workers should at least receive adequate compensation. The offer included in the agreement is unfair," he added.

According to the agreement, at the end of service workers should receive at least LE2000 ($280) for each year worked, with a ceiling capped at LE30000 ($4200).

Zaki has worked with Crystal Asfour, the world's largest producer of full-lead crystals, for 11 years. He believes that at 36 years old, it would be hard for him to find another job, especially since he suffers from a number of chronic diseases. "How can I live on LE22000 then?"

Many of the workers suffer from workplace-related illness resulting from the inhalation of lead vapors, including allergies, varicose veins, and osteoarthritis.

"There are serious health and safety violations at Crystal Asfour, according to a report conducted in March. The ministry will compel the factory to respect the law in this regard," Farouk said.

Only 7000 out of 18000 workers at Crystal Asfour have permanent contracts, while the remaining hold yearly renewable contracts.

"Some colleagues were fired after a protest last year demanding better conditions, while others were sacked after becoming unfit due to health reasons," Zaki asserted.

Workers are also demanding better pay, with a monthly minimum wage of at least LE2000 for what they describe as "exhausting" work.

Newcomers at Asfour plants receive some LE1000 per month, and that salary increases to LE1200 after ten years with the company.

A week ago, striking workers at one Crystal Asfour plant were attacked by thugs armed with bullets.

The Egyptian Trade Union Federation condemned the attack in a statement, accusing the company's administration of being behind it.