Thursday

Poison plant

By Jano Charbel

In the industrial city of 10th ofThey say that the products they manufactured have made them sick and they blame factory owner Ahmed Loqma and the asbestos they worked with.

Asbestos is a product used in construction materials that has been proven to be highly carcinogenic when handled in its unprocessed form.

“Loqma still has another 720 tons of asbestos in storage inside the factory walls as well as the tons of asbestos pipes that we manufactured,” said Assad Abdel Hadi, the vice president of the factory’s union. “Part of the reason we are camped out here is to make sure that he can’t get them out.”

For over a decade, a labor dispute between workers at the Ura-Misr Asbestos Company and its owner has been mired in a stalemate.

Workers, backed by Ministry of Labor reports and medical evidence, allege that the factory’s management never provided appropriate safety equipment and information, leading 46 of them to develop serious illnesses and another eight to die from cancer.

On 18 May, in the latest step in a growing campaign against the company in Egypt and elsewhere, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) sent a letter to President Hosni Mubarak asking him to intercede on behalf of the workers.

This latest appeal follows statements of concern by other institutions, such as the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, the International Union Against Cancer and individual European parliamentarians. On the domestic front, local labor and environmental NGOs have also helped raised awareness about asbestos.

“The Ura-Misr asbestos workers were instrumental in launching the anti-asbestos campaign [in Egypt],” said Muhammad Ibrahim Nagy of the Habi Center for Environmental Rights, a local NGO. “It is due to these workers’ campaign that the Ministry of Foreign Trade issued Decree 336/2004 banning all asbestos imports.”

Nagy told Cairo that asbestos, which he described as “a real and tangible threat to workers’ lives,” had previously caused some workers to die from cancer and many more to become ill in other factories.

“All these cases were hushed up,” Nagy said. “Now asbestos is being replaced by safer materials.”

The conflict at Ura-Misr began in 1995 when the Ministry of Labor’s Health Insurance Commission found working conditions at the asbestos factory to be hazardous. Subsequently, 11 of the asbestos workers were referred for medical examinations. Shortly thereafter, three of the workers died.

Following the deaths, their co-workers demanded regular medical examinations, the results of which revealed that 46 of them had what doctors term “ground glass appearance” in their lungs, an indication of cancer risk.

The workers claim that they were never told that their work would put them in danger, and they say that they were never provided with the necessary masks, protective clothing or adequate ventilation.

“We are all from rural backgrounds, and most of us have had only a basic education,” explained Said Abdel Latif, president of the Ura-Misr trade union.

“The company’s management told us nothing about the hazards associated with our work … A number of company employees and factory workers have died inexplicably over the years. We knew that three of these individuals died as a result of different kinds of cancers, but we didn’t know that the deaths might be due to these individuals’ proximity to asbestos.”

After the Ministry of Labor’s health inspectors visited the factory, the workers took their concern to Loqma. He provided them only with facemasks.

Several years after the 1995 inspection, new government safety standards were adopted and the Ministry of Labor issued Decrees 85/2002 and 4/2004.

These measures ordered the closure of the Ura-Misr Factory unless its management could guarantee that new safety measures would be implemented and that workers’ rights, health and safety would be protected.

Loqma, claim the workers, disregarded the decrees and continued production of asbestos water pipes at the factory.

It was at this point that Ura-Misr’s workers began their campaign to pressure Loqma into compliance with the law. They filed numerous complaints to government departments and the Labor Ministry dispatched several inspection committees to Ura-Misr.

Eventually, the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Industry issued Decree 336/2004, which banned the import and manufacture of all asbestos products. This led to the factory’s closure in September 2004.

On 20 September, the owner laid off his 52-man workforce without, they say, paying their wages. In response, the workers began a sit-in strike at the factory beginning on 20 November 2004.

They have remained in their makeshift protest camp for over six months, demanding unpaid wages, compensation for their illness and health insurance, temporary aid from the Ministry of Labor and the full respect of the relevant decrees by Ura-Misr.

At their protest camp last week, several workers displayed symptoms of asbestos-related diseases, including interstitial fibrosis (asbestosis), pleural plaques and mesothelioma—a fatal asbestos cancer.

Another former worker displayed his severely swollen limbs and skin ailments, and more workers suffered from loss of hearing and severed fingers. Nearly all of them complained of shortness of breath and chest pains.

“Loqma and his company’s administrative employees have denied that these illnesses and injuries are work-related and have refused to provide compensation or medical expenses,” said Abdel Hadi, who also alleges that Loqma has dumped asbestos waste in unprotected landfills near the factory as well as in the municipal sewage system.

Although the Ministries of Labor, Health, Environment, Investment and Foreign Trade and Industry have discussed tentative compensation plans for both the owner of Ura-Misr and for its workers, no final settlement has been agreed upon.

“We’ve been unpaid and unemployed for six months and we’re still waiting for the state to do something, anything, to help us,” said Abdel Latif.

“Previously we were dying only from asbestos but now, if the government doesn’t help us reach a just resolution to our crisis, we will also be dying of hunger.”

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