What Price the Egyptian Asbestos Ban?
Early in January, 2005, the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Trade and Industry prohibited the import and manufacture of all types of asbestos and asbestos materials; during the phase-out period, the fulfilment of asbestos contracts will be permitted but only under the strict supervision of the Industrial Control Authority.1 The decision to ban asbestos is the culmination of a sustained campaign by workers at an asbestos factory owned by the Egyptian-Spanish ORA-Egypt Company who protested that high levels of occupational asbestos exposure had led to numerous cases of cancer and asbestosis amongst the workforce.2 From 1983 when production of asbestos-cement water pipes began at this factory until 1997, no measures had been taken to protect workers from hazardous exposures inside the premises, no attempts had been made to curtail dumping of asbestos waste3 and no site visits had been conducted by factory inspectors.
In 2002, the Government set safety measures for working with asbestos,4 and closed the factory pending their implementation. Refusing to comply with most of the requirements, Ahmed Abdel Aziz Lokma, the billionaire owner of ORA-Egypt and other industrial and commercial companies in Egypt, managed to recommence asbestos manufacturing at the plant. The factory was closed once more for failing to introduce measures to curtail hazardous asbestos exposures in January, 2004. Soon after the closure, Lokma stopped payment of all wages. The Ora-Egypt workers and their trade union committee issued calls for solidarity. The Center for Trade Union and Workers' Services (CTUWS) became involved; the CTUWS issued a formal complaint to the International Labor Organization and contacted labor groups and organizations such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the International Federation for Building and Wood Workers, the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat and the International Network for Combating Cancer.
In June, 2004, the situation escalated with workers occupying the factory and calling for: payment of back wages, the clean-up of all asbestos processes prior to the reopening of the factory, compensation and medical treatment for all injured workers. Although negotiations suceeded in obtaining payment of wages and the restoration of some rights, the mobilization of the workforce continued; sixty ORA-Egypt employees mounted a protest at the Administrative Courthouse of Ismailia on July 4, 2004; this is the Court which considers the dispute between the Government and the Company over the factory's closure due to health and safety infringements.
In October, 2004, a Member of the Egyptian Parliament urged ORA-Egypt to comply with asbestos regulations and the Parliamentary Committee of Health debated the issue. A Ministerial Cabinet Committee, made up of the Ministers of Health, Environment, Manpower, Housing, Tourism, Supplies and the Governor of Cairo, decided that the company should be closed pending compliance with occupational health and safety requirements. At the same time, the Parliamentary Committee of Health recommended the Government: sign ILO Convention 162, close the ORA-Egypt company and work with the Egyptian Trade Union Federation to safeguard the workers' rights. On November 11, fifty-two workers staged a sit-in at the factory in protest at the non-payment of their salaries since September; the workers were sacked on December 25.
The current situation is summed up as follows:
While the CTUWS considers the Decision of the Minister of Foreign Trade and Industry a victory and a progressive step and hopes that it will be enforced, it calls upon you to continue your support for the asbestos workers so they do not bear alone the price of protecting the people and the environment against asbestos. Meanwhile, CTUWS emphasizes two important demands:
to provide clean job opportunities for asbestos workers dismissed from the companies that will be closed. They should be entitled to compensations equivalent to their wages until such opportunities are provided;
to secure the rights of the victims of occupational diseases related to asbestos for getting fair indemnity according to the rules issued in this concern by the International Labour Organization.
The workers fired last month maintain a vigil at a makeshift shanty town outside the shuttered factory gates. I can't breathe because there is asbestos in my lungs, Gamal Mansuer told one journalist. After 15 years at the asbestos factory, Mansuer suffers from lung fibrosis due to asbestos. Eight of his colleagues have died from asbestosis or lung cancer and most of the sacked workers are also sick. The company denies that their illnesses are work-related and has paid neither compensation nor medical expenses; the basic medicine required for each of the sick workers costs $35 per month; when they had jobs, their wages were $50 per month.
International support for the sacked ORA-Egypt workers is urgently needed, and can be expressed by contacting the CTUWS by email at: email@example.com Please make sure your email message is headed with your name, organization and contact address. Useful points which could be made include the need for:
ORA-Egypt to pay wages owing since September, 2004, medical bills and compensation for asbestos-related injuries;
the company to adopt non-asbestos technology and to reinstate all workers;
social insurance doctors to recognize cases of asbestos-related disease as occupational illnesses.
January 19, 2004
1 While the ban is a decisive step, the open-ended nature of the phase-out gives cause for concern; 70 tons of raw asbestos at one factory will last for two to three years.
3 During the Spring, 2004, 1,500 tonnes of asbestos waste were dumped behind the ORA-Egypt factory in the Tenth of Ramadan City over a holiday weekend.
4 Decision Number 85 of the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration.