With Egypt ranked the third deadliest country for journalists worldwide, making journalism an increasingly dangerous profession, it is not amongst the country’s deadliest occupations. Egypt’s most hazardous and life-threatening professions have been and still remain: Mining and quarrying, cement and chemical industries, red brick manufacturing, construction and building works.
Six journalists have so far been shot dead, and several others injured, since the military-led ouster of the Mohamed Morsi regime on July 3. Several other journalists have been subjected to serious and debilitating injuries.
Tragic as they are, these casualty figures pale in comparison to those of other occupations that are far more life threatening and are less covered by media outlets.
There are no accurate or reliable statistics regarding the number of workplace injuries and fatalities nationwide, however, industrial safety inspectors estimate that hundreds of workers die on the job each year, while several thousands suffer from work-related injuries and illnesses, and many have to undergo the amputation of their limbs. However, these rough estimates may very well be understated.
There are numerous disturbing reports of workers being burnt alive, crushed under the weight of machinery, bleeding to death, falling to their demise, drowning, and a daily loss of workers’ lives in transportation accidents. An untold number of others are debilitated by work related injuries, or suffer slow deaths due to illnesses contracted in the workplace.
According to Gehad Abul Atta, professor of Industrial Safety at Qasr al-Aini University, “Employers are supposed to inform the Ministry of Manpower of all injuries or fatalities that take place at their companies. However, this typically does not happen.”
The professor claims that there are only rough statistics covering around two million workers from a total national workforce of 27 million. “We’re talking about a small sample of less than eight percent of the country’s laborers that we have statistics on.”
Fatma Ramadan, Industrial Safety inspector at the Ministry of Manpower’s Giza Bureau, explained, “We inspectors are understaffed and overstretched. We’re about one tenth of the inspectors needed to cover the whole governorate.”
“The figures that employers submit to us regarding workplace injuries and fatalities are often fabricated so as to avoid lawsuits, warning notices, fines, or the payment of compensations to their workforces,” said Ramadan.
The inspector added that employers often ignore the labor law and industrial safety codes, while providing less than the minimum in terms of protective gear and workplace safety measures.
“They know that they can bribe many underpaid inspectors to turn a blind eye to violations,” Ramadan added, “even if a court issues a verdict against employers, they know that there will be nobody to enforce it.”
Ramadan explained, “Inspectors aren’t aware of the actual or even approximate number of workplace injuries and deaths amongst registered companies operating within the public or private sectors, which we are capable of inspecting two times per year at the most.”
Inspectors have practically no idea of the scale of workplace casualties in the informal sector.
Egypt’s most dangerous industries are typically powered by precarious labor forces, and primarily operate within the informal sector of the economy — particularly in the brick-making, construction, mining and quarrying industries.
These uninspected informal sector works rely on uncontracted laborers or workers on short-term renewable contracts. Their employment policies relegate several million workers as part-time workers — even if they work fulltime.
However, both the public and private sectors also rely heavily on precarious laborers. These two sectors also include some of the most hazardous professions — building works, chemical and cement industries.
Cement companies based in Egypt are among the country’s foremost sources of industrial pollution, while also directly contributing to respiratory and other illnesses amongst their workers and neighboring populations.
Working at the Helwan Cement Company, operated under the umbrella of the privately-owned Italcementi Group, Omar Abu Zeid spoke of his contractual and health grievances working in the cement industry.
“Like tens of other workers at this company employed on part-time contracts, I am denied membership in the local union, denied insurance coverage, along with adequate hazard compensations for work related injuries. We have no right to the government’s minimum wage, we are given very little in terms of face masks or protective gear, or health care.”
For several decades, a wide range of illnesses has been afflicting Helwan’s residents and cement workers as a result of prolonged exposure to cement dust. Among these are a variety of respiratory illnesses, including bronchitis, nasal ulcers, silicosis, pleural membrane effusion, and lung cancers.
Long-term exposure to cement dust has been scientifically proven to contribute to the spread of these microscopic toxic particles within internal bodily systems — which may afflict the heart, stomach, liver, kidneys, colon, spleen, muscles and/or bones.
Mohamed Hamed, a former worker at the privately-owned, Greek-based Titan Cement Company/Alexandria Portland Cement Company, also spoke of contractual and health violations.
Hamed, who was the president of the local workers’ union at this company, was sacked from his job, along with all 14 other union committee members, for launching a strike and sit-in at the company, in February 2013. The union was demanding improved wages and working conditions for the company’s employees. The company’s administration later fired a total of 180 workers for taking part in these industrial actions.
“Silicosis [a hardening of the lung tissues associated with cement dust inhalation] is very widespread amongst us,” said Hamed. “We were working in hazardous and life-threatening conditions in the factories, without proper ventilation,” he added.
“The company would provide us each with a flimsy mask once per week, this mask would usually fall apart by the end of the first day. They would only distribute proper masks and other protective gear amongst us when the industrial safety inspectors would come by,” Hamed said.
Hamed also spoke of workplace fatalities. He said his co-worker, Ahmad Awad, died a few years earlier when a load of limestone blocks crashed down on him from a machine. Another worker, Ashraf Abdel Hameed, has his leg severed inside a cement mixer.
According to Hamed, the family of the deceased worker was given compensation amounting to LE20,000, while the amputee was given compensation of LE10,000.
According to Ramadan, “Employers often blame the victims of industrial accidents in cases of either injury or death, accusing them of negligence. Sometimes adequate compensations are paid, but often times not.”
Hamed went on to state that an elderly worker, Reda Mahmoud, was amongst the 180 workers sacked for striking. He explained, “This old man had been suffering from serious respiratory illnesses for several years, and was paying LE900 per month for medical treatment. While he was employed at Titan, most of his medical fees were paid by the company, yet after being fired they washed their hands of him.”
Reda had to shoulder his entire medical bill after he was fired. His bills grew and so did his illnesses. He died of silicosis five months ago.
“Symptoms of occupational illnesses and work related diseases associated with the cement and chemical industries may take several years before they become clear symptoms,” said Ramadan.
With a population of around 30,000, residents of the Wadi al-Qamar neighborhood in Alexandria — adjacent to the Titan Cement Company — have filed a lawsuit against the company and its pollution, calling for its relocation. The ongoing case is being heard before the Administrative Court.
The majority of public sector cement companies were privatized and sold to foreign companies in the 1990s.
One of the most hazardous and polluting industries worldwide was granted governmental clearance in April to become an even greater source of pollution and industrial hazards, through the approval of coal imports to power this highly profitable industry. The Ministry of Manpower has not opposed the import and use of coal in the cement industry, despite objections from the Ministries of Environment, Tourism and Health.
The additional health and environmental impacts of the cement industry’s coal burning — on hundreds of thousands of cement workers and millions of local residents — is yet to be determined.
Like cement factories, red brick factories are amongst Egypt’s most highly polluting industries. They are also amongst the most dangerous workplaces nationwide.
Terrifying accounts of workers being burnt alive, suffering broken bones and respiratory illnesses, and dying in transportation accidents have emerged from these small factories. Approximately one million workers may be seasonally employed in this industry.
Around 1,000 of these red brick factories and workshops are located in south-eastern Cairo and southern Giza; an estimated 200,000 brick workers are employed in this area.
From the district of Al-Saff, worker Reda Abdel Latif said, “Other than brick making, we have few job opportunities here.” He spoke of relatively high wages in this industry which could reach around LE1,500 per month. “But it’s back breaking work, he says. “It makes your life shorter.” Each working shift lasts between eight to 15 hours. Often it is also fatal work.
Abdel Latif described the work-related fatalities of a number of his co-workers, and similar accounts from other factories. “The most dangerous job in the factory is the brick baker or oven stoker.”
“They stand on a wooden plank positioned over a deep pit leading down into the oven,” where temperatures reach over 900 Degrees Celsius.
Overcome by heat or physical exertion, several of these workers have lost their balance, and their lives in the process. “They fall into the pit or oven, by the time the furnace burners are turned off, and we are able to descend to retrieve the body we find it has been reduced to ashes. There remains no body for us to hand over to his family, only a cupful of ashes.”
The Ministry of Manpower does not inspect these brick factories, as they are usually not registered with it, and operate within the informal sector.
Abdel Latif added that workers in these brick factories are frequently subjected to life-threatening injuries, which often result in the amputation of fingers, toes and limbs. Heavy loads of bricks are carried on workers’ shoulders, and often collapse upon the physically exhausted worker bearing them.
Other commonplace injuries in these factories include: Superficial burns, spinal injuries, silicosis, and other respiratory illnesses linked to inhaling furnace fumes and burning diesel.
Several thousand children are reportedly employed in these factories as assistants; they are typically overworked and paid less than their adult co-workers.
Transportation accidents to and from these little factories are a near-daily occurrence. Many workers have been injured, debilitated or killed in accidents. Workers, like bricks, are transported in the backs of pickup trucks.
Ramadan explained that, “According to Egyptian legislation, workers who are casualties of traffic accidents are not officially classified as work-related casualties — unless they were being transported in a company bus or other company-owned vehicle.”
As is the case with the red brick industry, most deaths in Egypt’s hilly quarrying grounds are associated with transportation accidents.
According to Hossam Wasfi, of the “Better Life” NGO — an independent group which works to improve the lives of workers in the limestone quarries of Minya Governorate — recorded deaths amongst these workers has decreased since 2011, when the quarry workers established their own independent labor union.
Wasfi commented that in 2013, his NGO had recorded six fatalities amongst workers, down from 20 to 30 fatalities per year in 2010.
However, Wasfi clarified that “these are only the reported and recorded cases of fatalities amongst the quarries of Minya, many more go unreported.” Numerous injuries also go unreported.
“Injuries had also decreased as a result of increased unionization and increased awareness amongst the workers,” he said. Yet many of these injuries often involve the amputations of limbs.
An estimated 40,000 laborers are employed in the isolated quarries of al-Minya – the two local hospitals are not equipped to deal with the life-threatening injuries affecting these workers. They are usually transported to hospitals in the Governorate of Assiut, located around 150 kilometers south of Minya.
“Injured workers often die along the way from bleeding. Amputation is required in many of these cases because the injured worker arrives later than his limb can be salvaged.
Life threatening injuries occur to adult and child laborers alike.
In a previous visit to Minya’s quarries, 17-year-old Mustafa Akef pulled his galabiya up to his waist and displayed 13 stitches along his right leg. He was deeply cut when a fragment of a stone-cutting saw broke off a power tool and flew into his leg.
According to Yasser Fouad, president of the Independent Union of Minya’s Quarry Workers, around 5,000 child laborers are employed in Minya’s quarries out of a total of some 45,000 workers.
“The most serious injuries happen to the mechanical saw operators. This is the most dangerous job in the quarries,” said Fouad. The union leader commented that child laborers are usually employed in clearing the ground ahead of the sawing process.
Wasfi explained that injuries and fatalities had decreased due to awareness regarding the hazards of wearing a galabiya while operating the quarrying machines. “The saw catches on the edge of the galabiya and pulls the worker into its teeth.”
The breakdown and maintenance of mechanical saws and other power tools has been attributed to the most serious injuries in Minya’s quarries.
Fouad and Wasfi commented that other common injuries include spinal injuries, broken bones, respiratory illnesses, silicosis, eye injuries and infections from the plumes of limestone dust, and hearing loss and electric shocks associated with the operation of heavy machinery.
According to Fouad, “cheap and primitive machinery is used in the quarrying. Employers do not provide their workers with any protective gear.”
Indeed, only a few quarry workers could be seen wearing safety goggles, facial masks, or boots.
“We don’t receive any inspections from the Ministry of Manpower in these hills, as these quarries are part of the informal sector. We are left to fend for our own rights.”
Similarly dangerous working conditions are prevalent in the country’s granite and marble quarries, along with a few informal mines that are operated within the informal sector.
A lack of safety equipment or protective gear is evident amongst construction workers, who can be seen hanging off buildings on shoddy scaffolding, usually with no helmets or harnesses. Tens of these construction and scaffolding workers are reported to plummet from great heights to their deaths, many others are permanently disabled in collapses.