About 1 million workers employed in Egypt’s brick-manufacturing industry face constant threats of unemployment, exploitation, serious injury, illness and even death. This informal-sector industry relies exclusively on temporary and seasonally employed laborers who have no unions or insurance policies to protect their interests.
But some advocates hope that will change soon.
A conference last weekend organized by the Italian development organization COSPE and a number of Egyptian civil society organizations highlighted the plight of these manual laborers, promoted fair and safe working conditions, and helped them unionize their ranks. Representatives of the brick workers, along with trade union federations, labor lawyers, NGOs and employers, participated in this conference. Although the organization invited governmental authorities, none attended.
The conference focused on the neighborhoods of Saff and Desamy, which have the highest concentrations of red brick manufacturing nationwide. About a thousand red brick factories and workshops are located in this area of southeastern Cairo, and they employ more than 200,000 workers.
“There are no real job opportunities in Saff except for brick-making,” said Reda Abdel Latif, a worker. “In these factories, we are subjected to life-threatening injuries, which often lead to limb amputations.”
Abdel Latif said that “workers in this back-breaking industry toil under the scorching heat of the sun and brick furnaces, and exposure to near-freezing temperatures at night.”
Another brick worker from Saff, Hany Atta, said rampant child labor in the industry means that thousands of children are deprived of their educations.
“They risk their lives and sacrifice their schooling in order to financially assist their families,” Atta said.
He said workers are frequently debilitated in workplace and transport accidents, and are thus “put out of service, or rendered jobless for the remainder of their lives.”
Atta said nearly all brick workers suffer from burns, back injuries and respiratory illnesses associated with inhaling burning diesel and furnace fumes. On average, workers toil for eight to 15 hours per day in these factories.
“In comparison to other forms of manual labor, we are able to generate a decent amount of income from these factories. Yet this comes at the expense of our health. It’s the kind of work that cuts your life short,” Atta said.
Abdel Azim Younis, a brick worker from Desamy, said that while these factories provide money for their workers, there is no job stability, no contracts, no unions, no health insurance and no pensions. Younis added that because they burn diesel and rarely use filters in their chimneys, these factories produce tremendous amounts of pollution, which harms the environment as well as the health of workers and nearby residents.
“We brick workers are expendable capital in the eyes of the employers. If one of us dies, or is injured and unable to work, there are thousands of other workers waiting in line to take our jobs,” Younis explained. “Our production is vital to the building, construction, housing and real estate industries, yet we have no rights.”
Another worker from Desamy, Shaaban Saeed, said that “on average, a brick worker is employed in this industry only until the age of 40 or 45. His body breaks down shortly after this age, and he is no longer able to work in this industry or in any other manual labor for the rest of his short life.” Saeed argued that brick workers receive very low wages in light of their physically draining labor.
Saeed, Younis, Atta and Abdel Latif, along with a host of other brick workers, agreed on the necessity of establishing labor unions in these factories with the goal of improving working conditions, decreasing working hours and/or increasing wages, along with providing workers with contracts, health insurance and pensions.
Intisar Badr, an NGO coordinator involved with the Defending Workers’ Rights initiative, said in terms of environmental and safety standards, the brick-manufacturing industry has not developed and working conditions have not improved in decades. A small minority of these factories have moved to using natural gas instead of diesel, while a few others have installed filters in their chimneys.
“There is stringent resistance from employers regarding workers’ attempts to unionize or organize themselves,” Badr said.
Despite the rise of independent trade unionism since the January 25 revolution, a number of NGO representatives said employers are likely to fire workers who attempt to organize within these brick factories.
Factory owner Qadry Mohamed, who attended the conference, said he sympathized with his workers because they have many grievances.
“I would like to establish an insurance policy for my workers so that they have a safety net to fall on in case they are injured,” Mohamed said.
But he expressed reluctance of establishing a workers’ union within his factory.
“We understand and support the workers’ demands, but the workers also have to understand that such organizations would pressure us beyond our means,” Mohamed said.
Mohamed said the factory is barely making a profit because of rising diesel prices and other expenses, and that such pressure could force the company to shut down or sell off its factories. He pays each worker LE50 for a full day, which averages 10 hours, he said.
Labor lawyer Malek Adly described attempts to unionize brick workers as “a steep uphill struggle, especially if their struggle lacks legal and media support.”
“There is no enforcement of labor legislation with which to protect workers’ rights in the informal sector of the economy,” Adly said.
The lawyer said this roundtable conference was unlikely to lead immediately to the establishment of any unions in these factories, “but it can serve to raise awareness, and to produce labor leaders who could then lead this struggle.”