What Sisi didn’t say about labor conditions in constructing the New Suez Canal
Courtesy: New Suez Canal Facebook page

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi omitted to mention the 10 workers who died and 145 who were injured while working on the New Suez Canal project from August 2014 to August 2015.

During the canal’s inauguration speech on Thursday, Sisi and the Chief of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), Mohab Mamish, paid tribute to those who died as “Egypt’s martyrs” in terrorist acts, including members of the police and Armed Forces, but didn’t mention those who died during construction of the new passageway.

They glossed over the hazardous and precarious working conditions under which thousands labored for a year in order to build a 72 kilometer-long expansion of the existing Suez Canal.

Using patriotic rhetoric, Sisi and Mamish praised the timely efforts of all those who were involved in the mega project, including around 44,000 workers, military engineers, machinists, technicians, and Suez Canal employees.

Spokesperson for the Health Ministry Hossam Abdel Ghaffar, told Mada Masr that of the 10 workers, including one medical doctor, who died while working on the new project, five are reported to have died of natural causes, such as pre-existing medical conditions and heart attacks, while the five others are reported to have died in industrial accidents on site.

145 others were injured and required medical attention. The Health Ministry’s crews reported treating 103 workers who collapsed due to sunstroke. Another 41 were treated for venomous scorpion stings and one worker received medical attention after being bitten by a wild dog.

While the exact compensations paid per death or injury have not been disclosed, the ministry points out that comprehensive health insurance was provided for all those working on the New Suez Canal. Abdel Ghaffar added, that from its very beginning, dozens of field hospitals and mobile medical units covered the entire project site, providing round the clock service for those working on and around it.  

Seoud Omar, an independent union organizer and SCA employee in Suez City, commented that thousands of the SCA’s fulltime employees received “decent salaries and bonuses in light of this new project, with some professions and ranks being particularly well paid — to the tune of several thousand pounds per month.”

However, Omar continued, “The situation for thousands of other part-time workers and precarious laborers was less rewarding, in terms of their hourly pay rates, lengthy work schedules and very strenuous working conditions.”

Omar commented that several private contractors, who recruited the workers, in coordination with SCA, imposed harsh working and living conditions on the workers.

In his speech for the inauguration of the New Suez Canal, Mamish acknowledged the hard labor associated with the project. He stated that, from the very start of the project, no holidays were taken and 24-hour daily work shifts continued non-stop. Yet the SCA chief did not delve into the details of everyday working conditions.

Abdel Aziz Abdel Gawwad, a SCA employee and dredger-operator from Ismailia, who worked on the New Suez Canal, indicates that he and all his fellow workers were paid above the national minimum wage (amounting to at least LE1,200 per month) while working on the project.

However, working hours could extend from 10 to 12 hours per day, while conditions were often back-breaking.

Abdel Gawwad indicated that part-time workers employed by private contractors had even harder working conditions, often sleeping in the open, with little access to running water or restrooms.

It is reported that in many cases, such temporary and non-unionized workers, who were typically involved in the dry-digging phase of the project, often had to pay for their own food and drinking water purchased from local vendors, at above-market prices.

These workers often complained of exposure to intense heat during the day and cold at night, while also being exposed to snakes, scorpions and wild dogs, along with mosquitoes and other insects. It is not known if all these workers received full remuneration, or adequate compensation for their labor.

Another point not mentioned by Sisi or Mamish during their inaugural speeches, is that several hundred locals were denied work on the New Suez Canal project for unspecified “security reasons.” This exclusionary policy is reportedly linked to the forced relocation of some 2,000 local residents, who were displaced by the canal’s construction since September 2014.

Sisi claimed that this is just one of many national projects to be undertaken in the future, particularly along the Suez Canal. The government asserts that one million jobs will be created in light of the planned development in the canal zone.

Sisi also stated that the state’s public works project aims to realize the goal of “social justice and human dignity.”

However, the validity of his claims, whether in terms of job creation, social justice or human dignity, have yet to be assessed.

Sisi concluded his speech on Thursday by mentioning that historically, the Suez Canal “has left its fingerprints on the geography of world and on the map of humanity.”

Also unacknowledged by Sisi were the tens of thousands of locals pushed into forced labor, along with hired hands, who died between 1859–1869 to construct the 160 km-long Suez Canal. This is in stark contrast to former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s speech when he nationalized the canal in 1956 and paid tribute to the workers.

While the SCA’s official website does acknowledge the exploitation of thousands of workers associated with the building of the original canal, it doesn’t mention the number of those who died in its construction, estimated to be around 120,000.

Jano Charbel 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism