“EVERY TIME a worker from the factory dies, it is always from cancer—lung cancer, bone cancer, or leukemia,”says Shaban Khaled.
He is secretary of the trade union committee at the Egyptian-Spanish Asbestos Company (Aura) in Tenth of Ramadan City, an industrial park in Cairo’s Sharqiyyah province.
Eight of his workmates have died of asbestosis, and 46 others out of a workforce of less than 150 have developed cancer.
Since 20 November Aura workers have been occupying their factory to stop the company producing asbestos. Their campaign has forced the parliamentary health committee to recommend the closure of the factory and a complete ban on asbestos imports.
But the company director, billionaire industrialist Ahmed Abdel Aziz Lokma, has refused to pay the wages of 35 workers.
Shaban explains, “A worker in Egypt does nothing but work so that he can feed himself—if he doesn’t work he won’t eat. It doesn’t enter his head that the material might be dangerous.
“We were working from 1983 to 1997 without overalls, boots, masks or ear protection. It was totally illegal. The authorities were supposed to send factory inspectors, but between 1983 and 1997 they never came once. By 1997 it was too late for many of us.”
It is not only workers in the factory itself who have been put at risk: “During the May Day holiday weekend they carried off 1,500 tonnes of waste and dumped it behind another factory in Tenth of Ramadan City.
“This factory produces food. Huge numbers of people are at risk from the contamination. We called the police, we called the authorities, but all they would say is, ‘It’s not my problem, it’s not my problem’.”
Shaban says activists across Egypt have offered support: “The trade union committee in another factory in Tenth of Ramadan called today saying, ‘We’re supporting you. We’re going to come and visit the sit-in’.”
The Coordinating Committee for the Defence of Trade Union and Workers’ Rights is a network of trade unionists and political activists which is independent of the government-controlled Egyptian trade union federation.
“For the last seven months we’ve been in contact with the Aura workers and they’ve been coming to our meetings,” says Hisham Fuad, a leading member of the committee.
“When they started the sit-in we mobilised with them. We have organised a press campaign and put out statements on their behalf.
“We’ve also organised delegations to visit the workers in the factory, and we’ve set up a solidarity fund for donations.”
Hisham says the occupation at the Aura factory is only one of a growing number of strikes and occupations in Egypt today:
“There has been a definite rise in the number of workers’ protests. Over the past year there were something like 120 protests, ranging from strikes to workplace occupations, compared to 86 the year before.”
Workers’ increased willingness to fight has many causes, he explains: “The fall in the value of the Egyptian pound has led to steep price rises over the past year and half. Secondly, the new labour law gives employers many more opportunities to sack workers.
“Thirdly, there is the new government of Ahmad Nazif. Privatisation is the first item on the government’s agenda.”
“The street is simmering with discontent,” says Hisham. “So the government hasn’t reacted violently to the workers’ movement as it has in the past.”
Militant tactics have paid off for important groups of workers: “Transport workers in Alexandria won an important victory last month. They had a problem with the late payment of their wages, so the workers organised a demonstration, which forced the management to agree to their demands.”
In another recent strike workers at the Egyptian Fish Company were able to halt plans to privatise their factory: “The workers occupied the factory and organised a demonstration in the street in front of the company headquarters.”
When the boss of the Egyptian Lighting Company fled abroad, leaving huge debts, “The workers occupied the factory, and have been running the company themselves for six months.”
Privatisation is a key issue. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has been in power since 1981, ruling the country under emergency legislation. During the 1990s Egypt agreed to a programme of reforms imposed by the IMF in return for a loan.
Many of Egypt’s state-run industries have been privatised, while the country’s health and education systems have been run down.
Shaban’s confidence speaks volumes about the new mood among rank and file trade unionists in Egypt: “We feel that we’ve got a right to do what we’re doing. If what we’re doing is wrong then why are all these people helping us?”
Third Cairo Conference 24-27 March 2005
Called by the International Campaign Against US Aggression. For more go to www.stopwar.org.uk