The US-based multinational corporation, Cargill, has been criticized both locally and internationally over its heavy-handed response to an ongoing workers’ protest at its plant in Borg al-Arab City, which has been ongoing for over four months. Videos circulating of workers being physically assaulted and having barking dogs unleashed upon them has led to widespread condemnation.
The National Vegetable Oil Company, which is owned by Cargill, is witnessing a wide spectrum of labor violations, including the wholesale sacking of protesting workers and unionists, assaults on protesters using private security contractors and dogs, a virtual siege of the workers’ sit-in with electricity and water being cut off from the company – preventing the entry of food, drink, medicines and visitors to the workers inside – amongst a host of other transgressions.
After protesting (yet not striking) for their overdue bonuses, profit-shares and insurance coverage, workers at this company have been subjected to a lockout since December 15. Moreover, the company administration has since sacked nearly 90 percent of its workforce – including the local labor union committee in its entirety.
A total of 86 workers were employed at this company, 75 of whom have been punitively sacked for protesting – including all eight members of the union committee. Around 66 workers are still occupying their company grounds and maintaining their sit-in.
Only 11 workers remain employed at the company, although production has come to a complete standstill since mid-December.
Company workers, along with state officials, labor unions, NGOs and rights activists have all spoken out against the punitive measures that the National Vegetable Oil Company has taken against its workforce. Representatives from the US Embassy in Cairo are also reported to be involved in negotiations with the Egyptian employers.
Following an inspection of the company, the Ministry of Manpower’s Regional Bureau in Alexandria issued a written statement on February 10 criticizing Cargill’s administrators for “unnecessarily halting production, as there is no economic justification to do so.”
Mostafa Sebai, chief inspector at the Manpower Bureau in Alexandria, recommended that punitively sacked workers should be reinstated and that overdue payments should be delivered.
Speaking at a labor conference on March 23, sacked worker Alaa Abdel Aleem commented, “We’re being treated like enemy combatants.”
“They’ve tried to terrorize us into withdrawing from the company through the use of armed thugs and dogs. When that failed they tried to impose a siege upon us and to starve us,” he added.
Abdel Aleem added that the physical and psychological health of many of his protesting co-workers remains threatened. The storming of the company grounds by private security forces and their dogs resulted in minor injuries, trauma and psychological harm.
The sacked worker explained that “people are no longer allowed in to visit us or to inspect our conditions. Those of us who leave the sit-in are forcefully prevented from returning and rejoining our co-workers.”
In statements issued during the first week of April, the Ministry of Manpower has denounced the ongoing transgressions against workers’ rights at the National Vegetable Oil Company, and has cited 41 violations of Egypt’s Unified Labor Law 12/2003.
The Ministry has given the company’s administration until mid-April to address these transgressions, or face a referral of these violations to the prosecutor general.
However, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) has criticized the Ministry’s “lack of action and its foot-dragging” since December. In a written statement issued on April 15, the EFITU denounced suggestions proposed by the Minister of Manpower, Nahed al-Ashry, to the effect that workers should accept their dismissals, while the company should offer them compensations.
Events at the Cargill-owned company have also drawn a response from the International Labor Organization, whose regional representative, Mohamed al-Taraboulsi, described the administration’s tactics as “a grave violation of international labor laws.”
Speaking at a conference dubbed “Ending the siege on Cargill’s workers” on April 7, Taraboulsi commented that he aspired to resolve the conflict between Cargill’s administrators and its workforce, before raising these violations with the ILO’s general assembly.
Taraboulsi added that the company’s policies should not resort to punitive sacking and physical assaults on workers but through dialogue and negotiations, and that he is willing to provide consultancy and mediation regarding workers’ rights and international labor conventions.
Since the crisis at the National Vegetable Oil Company began in December, sacked workers have received letters of solidarity from some 60 local trade unions and labor rights organizations, along with petitions and campaigns from the International Food Workers’ Union (IUF), the IndustriALL Global Union Federation, and the US-MENA Labor Solidarity Network. Workers from the US, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland have also sent messages of solidarity.
Another sacked worker, Waleed Mossaad, told Mada Masr, “This week we’ve launched an online campaign in both English and Arabic to raise awareness regarding the plight of all workers at the National Vegetable Oil Company.”
Mossaad claims he has forcefully been denied entry back into the sit-in within the company since February.
According to Mossaad, “On February 2, we left the sit-in to meet with then-Minister of Manpower Kamal Abu Eita. Upon returning, we were told that we were not to be allowed back in the company as we had been fired.” Indeed, since January, the administration has posted notices within company gates to all those workers it had laid off.
Mossaad explained that he had sought the ministry’s intercession in resolving the crisis between the workers and administrators. According to Mossaad, the UK-based G4S private security company was hired to forcefully disperse and remove the workers on December 23.
Videos circulating of this attack on December 23 show burly private security forces – many of whom were dressed in black shirts and camouflage pants while swinging clubs in their hands, while others donned orange helmets and handled large black dogs – yet the G4S logo is not visible on their clothes.
Mossaad claims that retired Armed Forces General Sameh Seif al-Yazal, chairman of the G4S Company in Egypt, ordered these private security personnel to forcefully disperse the sit-in. This could not be verified, however.
Several workers are reported to have suffered minor injuries on December 23, while others are allegedly suffering from trauma and psychological breakdowns since dogs were unleashed on them.
The security company succeeded in removing the workers from their sit-in by the factories, to the garage area within the company gates.
According to Mossaad, from December 23 to March 13, “we had to smuggle food, water and medicine over the company’s gates and through its fences to our coworkers within. We had to run from the dogs and security guards who were constantly threatening us.”
The company’s administration is said to have resorted to another private security company on March 13, the name of which is not known. According to workers, on that day the water supply was turned on in the bathrooms once again.
According to Mossaad, the security guards agreed to let food and medicine in to the protesting workers on March 18.
Mossaad claims that this “easing of the siege” was a result of negotiations between representatives of the US Embassy, the company’s administration and the Ministry of Manpower to end the crisis.
According to Mohamed Kashef, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, “The administration of the National Vegetable Oil Company has proven to be very obstinate and unyielding towards the basic rights of its workers.”
Kashef explained that the company was very profitable, and that its workers had helped increase productivity. The company’s vegetable oils constitute about 40 percent of the contents of each bottle of state-subsidized cooking oil.
“The most recently employed worker at this company has been there for six years, others have been working there for many more years. Nevertheless, workers have been denied bonuses, profit-sharing, long-term contracts, health insurance, social insurance, medical compensations and, for the past four months, have been denied their union representation, along with their incomes and jobs,” he added.
Kashef added that the company’s administration is seeking to isolate its protesting workers from contact with the outside world, so that their grievances will not be heard. Kashef, along with numerous other researchers, doctors, lawyers, activists and journalists have repeatedly been denied entry into the company gates to meet with the workers within.
The researcher went on to state that “the Cargill Company in America appears out of touch with events at the National Vegetable Oil Company. As for the local Egyptian administrators, they have claimed that the protesting workers are opportunists, demanding things which they are not owed.”
Kashef concluded by saying that the company’s “local administration is not willing, as of yet, to partake in collective bargaining agreements with its workers, or with the Ministry of Manpower. This is why they have arrived at no agreement or compromise in order to settle this labor dispute through dialogue.”
According to Mossaad, “We need to have Cargill in America hear our voices. The workers of the National Vegetable Oil Company are desolate, besieged, gagged, monetarily broke, and are suffering from hunger and illnesses. The company here wants to get rid of us and hire new workers to work for less pay, but nobody should have to put up with such exploitation and blatant disregard for labor rights.”
Despite repeated attempts to contact the administrators by phone and email, there has been no response. As for Cargill’s representatives in Egypt, they declined to respond to questions via phone and email.
The agricultural and food processing giant Cargill has been operating in Egypt since 1994. Cargill has acquired 98 percent of the National Vegetable Oil Company’s shares since 2004. Beyond the National Vegetable Oil Company in Borg al-Arab, Cargill owns a grain transport terminal, the National Stevedore Company, in the Alexandrian port of Dekheila. This multinational corporation is also involved in the trade of grains, soybeans, animal feed, and sugar along with sugar-processing. According to Cargill’s website, this mammoth corporation employs some 370 people in four locations across Egypt.