Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Egyptian Truckers' On Strike

Al-Masry Al-Youm
With no end in sight, truckers' strike set to enter 13th day
Tue, 21/12/2010

Jano Charbel

Thousands of heavy-freight truck drivers and owners in numerous governorates across the country continue to strike. The strikes began on 10 December.

An estimated 70 thousand truck drivers and owners are protesting a series of government decisions that include raising taxes, reducing the four-year grace period for trailers to two years, and banning truck drivers from using highways on Thursdays and Fridays.

The ministry revoked the tax on 14 December, in light of the on-going strike. However, the strike continues as other demands remain unmet and drivers claim that local tax authorities continue to enforce the revoked tax.

Authorities have attempted to bring an end to the strike--especially in light of shortages in basic consumer commodities such as rice, grains, sugar and petroleum along with building materials including cement and steel. Unloaded goods have reportedly piled up in ports and dockyards, while some factories have resorted to reducing production to reduce warehouse overload.

Hundreds of angry truckers staged two protests outside parliament on 16 and 20 December.

Grievances expressed by the striking protesters include a deadline of August 2012 issued by the Ministry of Transport for the owners of semi-trailers to transform their vehicles to full-trailers.

According to Abdel Azim Bassiouni, a truck owner and driver in the Nile Delta Governorate of Sharqiya, the new tax represents only part of the problem. "Most important, we are striking against the decree stipulating that all semi-trailers become full-trailers."

Bassiouni questioned the logic behind this decree, "In whose interest was this decree issued? Surely it serves the interests of businessmen, factories and companies which sell and service full-trailers."

The trucker complained of numerous downsides, "In terms of road safety, semi-trailers are safer and easier to maneuver than full-trailers. Furthermore, full-trailers cannot access alleyways, congested streets or narrow agricultural roads, and it is more difficult to load them up." Salah Sobhi, another striking truck owner in Sharqiya, criticized the Ministry of Transport's decree; "this is a uniformed decision by bureaucrats sitting in offices who know nothing about trucking or transport." Sobhi added, "we truckers have all driven full-trailers, and we know of many others who own these vehicles. I can tell you, without a doubt, that semis are safer. A full-trailer requires a very wide street in order to make a turn, while a semi is more flexible and maneuverable."

Sobhi attributed most road accidents associated with semi-trailers to the "overloading of trailers and overworking of drivers, who often work 24 hour shifts."

Road accidents represent the second most common cause of death in Egypt. A recent government report revealed that an average of 18 Egyptians died in road accidents every day last year alone.

The trucker denied the existence of studies indicating that full-trailers are safer to operate and contended that it would “cost a truck owner LE50,000 per vehicle, if not more, to convert a semi into a full-trailer.” He argued that LE100,000 is needed “to modify the tractor which pulls the trailer,” thereby bringing the total cost of required adjustments to over LE150,000. Noncompliance with the decree, he contended, risks fines or imprisonment.

Bassiouni echoed those concerns, “I've just purchased a new tractor and semi-trailer worth over LE1 million. Am I supposed to surrender my new trailer to the authorities so that they can turn it into scrap metal?"

On Sunday, media reports indicated that nine trucks were attacked, burned and destroyed in areas of Sharqiya and Daqahliya because they violated the strike. Police arrested 80 strikers said to be involved.

Striking truckers complain that police forces threaten them with arrest, while the state-controlled General Union for Land Transport Workers openly denounces the strike. Meanwhile, heads of local transport associations, which are closely associated to chambers of commerce and the Ministry of Trade, have demanded an end to the strike--at least until March.

Mohamed Abel Moneim, the president of the Commercial Transport Association in the Gharbiya Governorate told Al-Masry Al-Youm, "Unfortunately, most drivers and truck-owners are still striking in this governorate." He expressed hope at ending the crisis during negotiations to be held at the Construction Materials Division of the Chamber of Commerce in Cairo on Tuesday.

Numerous businesses have imposed fines on transport and trucking associations involved in the strike.

Bassioni attributed huge financial losses resulting from the truckers' strike to "the government's ill-planned policies," adding that "the government has led the country to incur massive losses, worth billions, in numerous industries across the country. He argued that it could have averted the crisis if it “had conducted proper studies and discussed these issues with [truckers] beforehand."

"Our strike is a peaceful and non-violent protest for our rights; it is a protest against the government's policies,” said Sobhi. He added that "the government functions as exclusive tax collector while offering nothing in return.”

“Each day I pay nearly LE600 in taxes per truck at toll stations and weighing stations. These expenses do not include annual taxes demanded by the Tax Authority."

According to some media outlets, effects of the truckers' strike have spilled into other sectors as truckers began striking at the state-owned South Cairo Grain Mill on Sunday.

*Photography by Al-Sayyed El-Baz

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