Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Dissenting Voices of Egyptian Quarry Workers & Owners

Tuesday 21 July 2009
Chaos among the quarries

El Minya is bracing itself for a second round of violent clashes over a new government taxation system
By Jano Charbel

El-Minya- On the city’s eastern banks, dozens of workers wait idly by the side of roads in anticipation of job offers in the quarries. Empty trucks and lorries drive uphill towards the quarries, while others drive downhill loaded with stone blocks and dust-covered workers.

A July 16 protest here over a new system of government tax attracted an estimated 4,000 angry quarry workers. When Central Security Forces moved in to physically disperse the protesters, the ensuing conflict left one police conscript dead and a dozen more injured; more than 50 protestors were arrested and at least 20 more were treated for tear gas inhalation.

Meanwhile, the quarry owners and workers have returned to their workplaces.

Among the white cliffs that house the estimated 800 local quarries, business-as-usual seems to have resumed. Machine operators saw into the earth and cut out rows of blocks producing immense clouds of dust in the process; close-by a team of workers dislodge these blocks and toss them to their coworkers who line and stack them in the backs of trucks. Very few of these workers wear protective masks or goggles, although most do cover their faces with scarves and some wear sunglasses.

But a climate of fear and suspicion reigns at all levels. All workers and quarry owners interviewed for this article refused to give their names or chose pseudonyms to protect against government reprisal.

Under the protection of anonymity, the workers bitterly vented against what they see as a callous and out-of-touch government decision that will directly affect their livelihoods. The average quarry worker, they say, can make up to LE 50 per day, while a machine operator can make up to LE 120.

“The governor is a police-officer-thug, he forcefully wants to take our money that we work so hard to make" said one man. Another anonymous worker said, “The governor sits in his air-conditioned office and never comes to inspect our workplaces in these hills; he knows nothing about our working conditions." Yet another shouted, “Does he think we are working in a gold-quarry or what?"

A local activist said the harsh working conditions in the quarries have honed the workers’ feelings of bitterness and set the stage for this month’s explosion when the new tariff system was announced.

“Quarrying is an extremely hazardous occupation. Nearly 100 workers die as a result of industrial accidents each year in these hills. Several hundred more are injured, maimed by saws and razors, while others are crushed in rockslides," he said.

One 19-year-old quarry worker lifted up his galabiya to display the long scar running down his left leg.

“A saw broke off one of the machines and cut my leg open two years ago, I nearly bled to death," he said.

Even for those who escape serious injury, the harsh lifestyle of a quarry worker takes its toll.

“By thirty or forty years old the worker is physically worn-out," one man said. “You won’t find any worker in the quarries who is 50 years old. Only quarry owners reach that age."

A co-owner of a local quarry, asking that his name not be published, said the government is trying to tax the operations without providing the social and health care services that the taxes are supposed to fund.

“If the governorate provided our workers with clinics, hospitals or medical assistance then they would be willing to pay for these services," he said. “But what has the government given us? Nothing at all. They don’t give, they only take."

The owners warned that Minya could witness a second explosion of workers’ anger if the situation isn’t resolved by August 1, when the new taxation system is schedule to take effect.

The dispute began earlier this summer when Minya Governor Ahmed Diaa el-Dein ordered a change in the government’s system of taxing the hundreds of stone quarries that dot the city’s eastern hills. El-Dein decreed that instead of collecting an annual rent on the quarries, plus the annual social insurance payments, the only charges imposed would be the charge of 1 piaster upon every brick-sized block of stone produced, plus another piaster for each block that is transported within the governorate, and two piasters for each block being transported outside the governorate.

In a statement issued by the governor’s office, el-Dein said the change amounted to a mere adjustment in accounting procedures—one he discussed beforehand with several local quarry owners.

“We were surprised when we later found that quarry owners were objecting," el-Dein’s statement said.

But one local workers’ rights activist (who asked to keep both their name and that of their independent organization undisclosed) explained that the changes actually amounted to a massive new tax on quarry operations. The reason: only about 350 of the larger quarries were ever registered with the government and paid the annual rent fees or social insurance fees. Another 450 or so smaller quarries were unlicensed and never paid anything, the activist said.

“To an outsider, the governor’s decree would seem like a service to the quarry owners in its elimination of the burden of rent, but in reality most of the quarry owners and workers weren’t paying rent or social insurance," the activist said. “When you calculate it, you’ll find that this new system will generate at least another LE 10 million per year for the Governorate’s coffers."

Most local quarry owners, large and small, shut down their operations in protest at the beginning of July while they attempted to negotiate with the Governorate. But by July 16, workers left without an income source grew impatient and began marching and demonstrating, the local activist said.

The aftermath of the July 16 protest has left parts of Minya on security lockdown. Most quarry owners and workers have resumed operations, while the governorate conducts negotiations with the owners and the relatively small local quarry workers’ trade union. El-Dein postponed implementation of his new taxation decree until August 1 and has discussed plans to create an LE 5 million fund for compensating workplace injuries and deaths, along with the immediate construction of a medical center and a mobile hospital unit.

Forty three protestors remain under arrest despite a court ruling ordering their release. Prosecutors have filed charges including participating in an illegal demonstration, assault and injury of law enforcement officials, accidental murder, blocking-off roads and obstructing traffic.

Now a relative calm has settled on Minya, backed by a massive deployment of security forces and paddy wagons. Meanwhile all sides are trying to understand and explain the decisions and social circumstances that led to such a violent confrontation in this rural city about 240 kilometers south of Cairo.

“The ball is in (the government’s) playing field now," he said.

Meanwhile the local activist said that the entire conflict has already produced one interesting side effect—an unlikely unified front against the government.

“This is the first time that both the quarry workers and the owners are united in their grievances."

See also: Al Masry Al Youm Online - 43 miners in police custody following riots

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