Suez Steel owner refuses to reopen plant, adding to Egypt’s woes

SUEZ, Egypt (PAI) - The owner of Suez Steel, the factory in Egypt where the army arrested and briefly detained two union leaders, is refusing to reopen the plant unless the workers he forced to strike there three weeks ago unconditionally return to their jobs, an international union rep on the scene reports.

The army's arrests and action there on Aug. 12, which produced a melee that injured two workers and led to protests from other Egyptian unions and organizations, was a precursor to the August 15 army crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ahmed Kamel, Middle East and North African representative for IndustriALL, an international union federation that includes U.S. unions, told Press Associates Union News Service, via email, that Suez Steel's owner instead returned to his home in Beirut, Lebanon. Meantime, the Egyptian Labour Ministry, headed by former union federation president Kamal Abu Aita, paid the strikers out of a ministry emergency fund.

Striking workers will return to the plant, which employs 2,200 people full-time and another 2,000 day workers, if the owner meets three conditions, Kamel added: Reinstating 12 workers the owner arbitrarily fired after he forced the strike to begin, paying delayed wages, and "cancellation of all legal procedures from both sides." At the employer's demand, police filed arrest reports against the 12.

Kamel, who is actively participating in mediation discussions Aita is hosting, added, "Given the political and security situation in Egypt, both workers and government showed some flexibility." Kamel received the workers' conditions in a subsequent meeting with the unionists, members of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions. EIFTU succeeded a former union at the plant, Kamel said.

The army crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood on August 15 has since left more than 900 Brotherhood supporters and more than 40 police dead. Three days before, the army arrested Suez Steel union leaders Amr Yusif (Yousef) and Abdel-Raouf Abdel-Khaleq (Ra'uf).

"Security forces forcibly dispersed a sit-in on factory premises by strikers...with a level of violence used that caused strong criticism of their actions," IndustriALL said.

"As a result of the discussion, the detained workers" - Suez Steel union leaders Yusif and Ra'uf - "were released and the minister of labour decided to pay a month salary to workers from the Workers Emergency Fund," Kamel wrote. "Unfortunately, the Lebanese employer did not show any flexibility and insisted that workers must start work before any negotiations.

"When I talked to him couple of days ago he said he traveled to Beirut and closed the factory. Workers confirmed such news as he circulated a note on the closure of the factory. I am urging the minister of labor to pressure him to implement the minimum of the workers' demands and then we (can) continue the discussion of the rest of the demands in September while work is running in the company," Kamel added.

"Workers' leaders argue that they cannot ask their colleagues to start work without having a written agreement and payment of the delayed wages," IndustriALL added. "Now I am in the office of the minister of labor to continue discussion and hopefully will get the employer to sign the agreement," Kamel emailed.

The arrests and the prior sit-in at Suez show the uncomfortable position of Egypt's independent unions in the continuing turmoil there.

Independent Egyptian unions and their members were among the leaders in the overthrow of 30-year dictator Hosni Mubarak in January 2011 - a role that earned them praise and awards from the AFL-CIO, which has yet to comment on the crackdown.

But even as unions pressed for stronger worker rights and - among other things - a maximum wage imposed on company owners, the unions faced crackdowns, first from the army-run government that replaced Mubarak, then from Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government and now from the interim army-controlled civilian government.

The Suez Steel workers' struggle has lasted more than a year. The firm rejected the union's contract proposals about career structure, health care benefits, incentives, and use of company profits. The profits were the sticking point. Suez Steel's chairman claimed the firm was losing money, but the union found the firm donated approximately $430,000 (three million Egyptian pounds) to the government for "national reconstruction."

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