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Updated: 18.12.2012 15:51
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"The full story of the Aura-Egypt workers”

During their strike the workers of Aura-Egypt company have been sending cries of death to the whole world: Maybe someone could help in protecting them from the real death they are facing. When we first went to support these workers, we imagined that they were only striking over the usual demands for salaries and wages, especially after knowing that the owner of this company, Ahmed Abdel-Azeem Lokma, was refusing to pay the workers’ salaries for April, May and June. Then we realized how great was the disaster facing these poor workers. They are dealing with asbestos, a fatal material that is used in manufacturing water pipes, in spite of its being a globally forbidden material that leads to different kinds of cancer and afterwards death.

We were astonished, while sitting among the workers, to see that every one of them was carrying formal papers that confirmed some kind of cancer; and some of them even carried papers confirming that the cause of death of some partners was different types of asbestos cancer, especially lung cancer. They considered us their last hope to escape death and cancer, or at least to recover the costs of this death to help their little kids. It is not only a story of capitalism stealing workers’ efforts but stealing their lives as well.

Shaaban Ahmed – the head of the trade union committee in the company – describes the disaster and relates some details of this story, saying: "The company was instituted in 1983, and the Spanish company Aura-Lita had 49%; at this time Lokma was only one of the partners. During this period we knew nothing about the dangers of this fatal material ‘asbestos.’ Although some of us traveled to Spain to be trained and saw the Spanish workers wearing special suits similar to astronauts’ suits, unfortunately no one ever thought that this was because of the danger of this material. Of course this is not an excuse for the owners; they knew every thing about asbestos.”

"Things continued this way until 1993, when some diseases began to appear. After awhile our friend Muhsen Afifi died: although he was an accountant and far from the fatal dust, he contracted blood cancer. In 1995 Abdel-Mounem Halloul died of enteric cancer, and in 1997 Ahmed Abul-Einein died of stomach cancer. What is strange is that the management declared that these were not occupational diseases and refused to pay a cent to the families of those workers. The whole story began to become crystal clear after the visit of the National Center for Industrial Safety, which, after its regular inspection in 1997, confirmed that some workers had contracted cancer. The management hid this report, and in 1998 nine workers went to the medical committee of the health insurance institution –Tenth of Ramadan branch – and were transferred to Nile Hospital in Shoubra on 3 October 1998. The report of this committee confirmed that five of the nine workers had cancer and recommended they stay out until they were totally cured and were checked again. On 5 May 1999 a report from the medical affairs committee for occupational diseases confirmed that two of those workers were in very bad condition. They were Atef Abdel-Mounem Mahmoud and Saber Ibrahim Abdel-salam, who were determined to have lung fibrosis”.

Now it is clear – according to the trade unionist – how unscrupulous is the new owner, who had more than 80% of the company after buying the shares of the Spanish partner. For more than ten years he has been watching the workers die without any concern other than for his wealth and profits. And without any sense of responsibility he has tried to hide all evidence of the real diseases of the workers and their real causes.

We also talked to Said Abdel-Lateef, the head of the trade union committee in the company, who said: "It is not only death but also our kids and families starving after our death. If only they had paid them some compensation we would have been satisfied. Even our lawful rights guaranteed by the law articles are being refused to us. In 1993 the health care system provided for in a company bylaw was eliminated. One of the conditions in this bylaw was sending the workers abroad if required to receive proper medical treatment, and the company was obligated to pay the costs. In 1993 the company changed this article and transferred the responsibility to the national health insurance institution. It also refused to pay our social raises that are guaranteed by the law and through agreements with all the occupational and labor trade unions. We already filed suit in 1994, 1995 and 1996, and we won court rulings that proved our right to a 10% annual raise and to retroactive payments for past years as well. This is the only reason that made the company accept a settlement. It also eliminated the bonus of production that was sometimes amounted to more than 25% of the salary. Even this very small sum allowed to us by the law as compensation for working in this fatal occupation has been denied totally”.

Mokhtar Abdel-Hameed – another trade unionist – tells us about another aspect of this fatal journey of the workers. He says: "After uncovering the facts about our occupation and the danger of death we are facing, we began trying to look for any kind of help and contacted all concerned and responsible bodies and administrations, especially after workers began leaving the company and without demanding any of their acquired rights. Unfortunately, we found nothing and no one helped us. During the period from 30 March 2003 until 30 October 2003, 15 workers left the company. The owner hired new workers who knew nothing about the fatal nature of the work and began a new death journey. After a long fight we managed to win the adoption of the Decree No. 85 in 2002 from the Manpower Ministry, which ordered: "Cease operations of this company until all the dangerous causes and conditions are removed, without prejudice to the workers’ rights to their full salaries, according to Article 120 of Labor Law No. 137 of 1981”. Another decree was subsequently issued for reopening on the condition of removal of all the dangerous causes and conditions in one month, and application of all required health and safety conditions. This month became more than nine months and nothing has been done. The management would evade inspections by the health and safety committee of the ministry and prevent it in one way or another from seeing the real situation on the ground, even if it had to stop production on the day of the committee’s visit. On 11 January 2004 another closure decree was issued, Decree No. 4 for the year 2004, which again ordered that the workers’ rights be preserved. We were very surprised to see the owner not only refusing to pay our salaries for April, May and June, but also requesting that we return to work, claiming that the company had been authorized to reopen the factory by a ministerial committee in the ministerial council.”

After examining the different documents we recognize how severe is the corruption in our country. Jamal Mansour, one of the workers, showed us two different reports signed by doctors in the health insurance institution. The first has the number 75\315 and is signed by Dr. Mamdouh El-Shaarawy; it confirms that the worker contracted lung fibrosis as a result of exposure to asbestos dust. The second report is No. 215, signed by Dr. Helal Shaaban, which claims that Jamal’s case, following examination by the occupational diseases committee, proved to be non-occupational. The latter is one of the many reports the owner managed to obtain as proof to clear himself from responsibility. It was issued by the health insurance institution, East Delta branch. Jamal describes the symptomatic attacks of his affliction, saying: "My eyes glimpse and bulge out, and my chest becomes as a rattle; my face turns pure red, and in spite of all this the owner tries to prove that it is something that has no relation to asbestos.”

The biggest surprise was a very strange reopening decree, issued by a committee called "The Ministerial Committee for Utilities” – which is unrelated to the occupational health and safety committee that issued the closure decree or any other committee under the Manpower Ministry or Health and Environment Ministry. This decree is only sealed from the City of Tenth of October City. This raises a big question here: What is the relationship between this committee to what is happening in the company, and what is the authority of that committee to issue and apply the reopening decree, especially since the closure decree took more than a year to be issued?

The case here not only involves closing or opening a company; it is not only about reducing the wages of workers, or stealing their efforts. It is also a crime, in effect, of deliberate murder for tens of workers and the corruption of governmental institutions. We hope that these murderers will not be able to run away from full punishment and accountability.

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