Egypt’s railways see biggest strike in almost 30 years

A nationwide train drivers strike continued into its second day on Monday, in protest against the “government neglect of their demands for higher salaries.”

An official source at the National Railway Authority estimated its losses at about LE4 million due to the cancellation of nearly 1,100 train trips, and giving ticket refunds to passengers.

Since the start of the strike, passengers have been lining up at ticket booths to get their money back, while transportation police forces have spread around stations to secure the facilities and calm angry crowds.

The strike was initially scheduled for 1 April but was put on hold for negotiations between a delegation of train drivers with the Transport Ministry, Labor Ministry, the National Railway Authority and the Shura Council’s Transportation Committee. The meetings broke down on Saturday evening, leading to widespread dissatisfaction among thousands of railway workers, and on Sunday morning, thousands of train drivers launched the largest such work stoppage since the historic railway strike of 1986.

The train drivers declared that they would not call off their strike until their demands are met.

The strike has paralyzed the country’s transportation lifeline, and resulted in work stoppages for all sectors of railway employees — whether they had intended to participate in the strike or not. The NRA is said to employ around 73,000 workers nationwide.

Hussein Zakariya, director of  National Railway Authority, announced “an immediate bonus to committed train drivers who are doing their job and care for the interests of the Railway Authority and ordinary citizens.”

Legal action will be taken against striking drivers, Zakariya added. The Railway Authority has made several attempts to overcome the crisis, including refunding tickets and guiding passengers to alternative means of transportation.

“Although we’ve had some limited strikes in 2008 and 2009, this is clearly the largest and longest-lasting strike of railway workers since 1986,” says a control tower worker, who wished to remain anonymous.

On Saturday, NRA officials had offered protesting train drivers a 10 percent bonus that would come into effect in May. However, this did not appease the disgruntled drivers, who had put forth a list of clear demands and grievances.

Workers are demanding bonuses according to hours of actual work per month, a realistic payscale according to kilometres driven, food compensation payments and eight paid days of rest per month.

“This so-called bonus would have increased our monthly wages by a meagre LE 20 to LE70. This is not what we are demanding,” says train driver Ashraf Momtaz.

“We are demanding our basic rights. We demand bonuses according to the number of hours of work and overtime work which we contribute,” he adds. “The NRA insists on paying us only 10 piasters [about 1 US cent] for each kilometer we drive. This is beyond exploitation, as the only sub-unit of the Egyptian pound in circulation at the moment is the 25 piaster coin.”

Momtaz adds that train drivers are demanding eight paid days of rest per month, “just like the metro conductors receive.”

While he does agree that the NRA is cash-strapped and low on resources, he attributes this financial crisis to the "corruption and mismanagement of the NRA by its authorities.”

“We could have enough money for our demands, if there a maximum wage cap was imposed on the NRA’s leaders,” he argues.

Dissatisfied drivers claimed that the top 18 railway officials are paid an aggregate of LE1.4 million pounds per month.

NRA officials could not be reached for comment to validate this figure.

Sitting next to Momtaz in the train drivers’ lockerroom at the Ramses railway station, conductor Tareq Mahmoud comments,  “Beyond our payments and holidays, we are demanding that the NRA properly maintain its tractors, carriages, machinery, train tracks, stations and railway crossings.”

“Drivers, employees and commuters alike have their lives threatened on a daily basis by the operation of these outdated and disintegrating railway networks,” Mahmoud adds. “There’s not a single train tractor which is fit for service."

Fellow train driver Ibrahim Abdallah believes their demands can be realised by going on strike. “We’ve tried protesting and we’ve entered into repeated negotiations, to no avail.”

Abdallah adds that metro workers embarked on a strike on 14 November 2012 and within three hours were granted increased wages, and also won the dismissal of their “corrupt chief” from the metro authority.

Some conductors also demand profit-sharing, as is the case with metro workers. However, it’s unclear how this would work, as the NRA has been reporting annual losses of millions of pounds.

However, “nobody except the top administrators of the NRA are aware of how much the railways are making or losing. There is a total lack of transparency,” claims the anonymous tower control operator.

“We control workers didn’t announce our participation in today’s strike; it is only the train drivers who launched this strike action,” he adds.

As trains piled up in Cairo’s central Ramses station, the worker explains that he, along with all other sectors of railway employees were caught up in this strike whether they agreed with it or not.

 “Not all train drivers were involved in this strike. We had drivers operating trains from Upper Egypt this morning, but when they arrived in Ramses they were paralyzed by other drivers’ strikes in Cairo and the Nile Delta. As a result, everything came to a standstill, including the control towers,” he points out.

 “Although we did not directly involve ourselves in this strike, I still support the right to strike … If the demands of the train drivers are met, then we also want our demands to be realized. We all want improved wages and working conditions, together with safer and more secure railway networks. We will demand equity in rights, like those of the drivers,” he continues.

Authorities and the state-owned media had claimed that the Armed Forces would take over operations in case of a train drivers’ strike, but “neither the army nor the police are capable of driving or operating these trains” claims Momtaz. “We even operate the army trains for the Armed Forces.”

In March 2012, the military had operated alternate bus services during the Delta Bus workers’ strike, but they appear unable to fill the same function of strikebreaker during this railway strike.

The Railway Authority sought to find replacements for the strikers among metro conductors, but they reportedly refused out of solidarity.

Meanwhile, chaos prevailed in numerous railway stations across the country on Sunday, as virtually all railway operations came to a complete standstill. Bus and microbus stations became overburdened as throngs of stranded commuters sought other means of transport. Crowds of commuters had to struggle amongst themselves to find spaces on these buses. In Assiut, university students blocked the streets around the main train station in protest against the strike, with some demonstrators entering the station to hurl stones at the striking conductors and demanding that they get back to work.

Railway Authority officials and security authorities have threatened to fire the conductors and press criminal charges against them if they do not end the strike.

“We are aware that the country’s railways have been negatively affected by these protests. We ourselves have been affected it, and we also know that the NRA is losing millions as a result,” Momtaz states.

“But we are doing this for the sake of our rights, and for the sake of improved trains and services for all commuters. This is our last resort, as we have exhausted all other means of negotiations with the NRA.”

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