Some 900 km from Cairo, 46 years old Mohamed stands in front of a blast furnace, with a temperature reaching 450°C. Each day, for the past 11 years, this has part of his job at the ferrosilicon factory in Edfu.
The public-owned ferrosilicon producer is the largest plant in Egypt, with a capacity of 45 000 tonnes per annum of 75% silicon alloy.
For just a moment, I stand in his shoes: The heat feels like the heart of hell itself, penetrating your cells 20 meters from the face of the furnace.
The factory is one of the main sectors of production within the company of KIMA in Aswan, where the factory produces silica alloy, which is used as an essential element in the production of iron and steel. It is also the main source in the production of the silicon dust, a secondary product to be mixed with cement to strengthen concrete construction.
Mohamed is one of more than 1000 workers. In 2010, the figure was listed at 1319 according to the Work Office. This has reduced to 1287 due to dismissing of 30 permanent workers, and two temps, during 2011.
The workers feared declaring their full names for the report for fear of retaliation by the office administration.
A report seen by FAIR [Forum for African Investigative Reporters], issued by the Medical Department of the Agouza Hospital in the Ministry of Health, to the director of the Egyptian Metallurgical Industries Company, disclosed:
“After a medical check in, it was found that the patient suffers from dyspnea and from shortness of breath from the smallest effort, and by checking his respiratory system it was found that he was suffering from shortness in the functions of his respiratory system and was advised to keep away from any dust or vapors or different air currents or any pungent smelling gases so as his health doesn’t deteriorate, and this is a health certificate, and the worker must also check his respiratory system functions after six months.”
The report was issued in December 2009, and bares the signatures of the treating physician, the General Manager of the hospital as well as the seals of the specialized medical centers in the Agouza Hospital/Ministry of Health.
In the annex, the analysis of the lung functions, as well as breath measurements of the patient, issued by the Laboratory of Lung functions in Chest department in Ain Shams University, confirmed the poor condition of the patient.
But the factory’s administration failed to act after viewing the report.
Warning: Keep Out
For two more years, the worker in question continued in the same position. In September 2011, weakened and worsened, the patient sought treatment again. The second report concluded with the same result.
The case is one of the least severe of reports seen by FAIR. Another medical report issued by the Factory’s own medical department, about the status of a worker, who had tremendous difficulty obtaining a copy, stated “the worker suffers from shortage in his bronchial tubes, a light Pulmonary Fibrosis, and a general deficiency in the functions of the lung.
“So it is advisable to keep him away from any dust or fumes or impurities or air-currents to prevent his health situation from worsening. It is also recommended to do a follow up check-in on the functions of the lungs and chest CT scan every six months or a year.”
This report, issued in December 2009 and sent to the Director of the Company, was co-signed by the General Manager of the hospital, the treating doctor, the specialized medical centers of Agouza Hospital in the Ministry of Health, and the Egyptian Metallurgical Industries company/Department of Industrial Relations/Medical Affairs/Cairo.
The report concluded with a sentence that stresses the critical situation of the worker: “It is recommendable to transfer the worker to a department away from dust.”
The annex to the report included, an analysis of the lung functions and measurement of the patient’s breathing, issued by the Laboratory of Lung functions in Chest department in Ain Shams University.
The case studies got worse: FAIR cited a third medical report signed by Doctor. Hamdi Abdullah, a specialist in respiratory problems and allergies, and director of the hospital of Sadr Edfu, heading Tuberculosis. The report that a medical examination of a worker, revealing the patient suffered from an acute inflammation of the lungs and pulmonary silicosis.
Routinely done, Routinely Scammed
For 35-year-old worker, Jaber Al Said, a worker in the production division for nearly 11 years, the labor and health conditions are dire:
“A periodic check-in is routinely, and superficially, every 6 months. The doctor who does it is actually a pediatrician. She puts her Stethoscope on; listens to our heartbeats, and is supposed to have examined us like that,” stated Jaber to FAIR.
“The check-in doesn’t last more than two minutes for each worker. And anyway. Even this clinical examination diagnosed possible lung silicosis in four cases,” he told us.
“Each time I go to the Health Insurance to do x-rays, the specialists check the results and would say that my lungs are completely clean, but they do not accept to give us the x-rays images,” he continued.
“They did that four successive times. And once, we insisted to take the images, but they said that the images were damaged!”
According to workers we spoke with, health insurance required workers to receive compensation for work-related injuries, which can reach 1500 to 2000 Egyptian Pounds. This figure is double when the rate of health failure doubles.
Physical ranges from deadly lung disease to heavily affected eyes, including ‘white water’ illness. According to Jaber, when the doctor transferred ten cases of eye infections to the Aswan-based hospital, some of whom were unable to see, the hospital claimed there were no problems.
Nothing from Nothing
Yet, according to workers, there existed no money in the insurance coffers. The specialists, they claimed, were obliged to inform workers that x-rays were fine, and that there was no need — and no possibility — for them to double check with a doctor from ‘the outside.’
From the more than 1000 workers in the factory, the clinical examination suspected possible presence of lung silicosis in 450, prompting around 300 workers — many of whom worked in the production division – to strike for ten days from 23 April to 3 May 2013.
They hoped to force the company to respond to demands for improved working conditions. The strike resulted in arbitrary transfer of workers to disrupt the strike.
“The Work Office launched judicial procedures number 4918-4917 before the Edfu Court against arbitrary transfer of workers, and the Factory’s violation of safe and healthy work conditions,” said Jaber.
“The lawsuit also included workers’ deprivation of training that would qualify them to work properly, and this is exposing them to serious risks,” he said.
Three strikes, You’re out.
According to one leader of the strike, who feared giving his own name, “After the strike I was transferred with around 70 other workers – 30 of them were sick, with slipped discs or lung silicosis.”