Unhappy workers threaten to shut down Egypt's Suez Canal

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 7, 2011 

SUEZ, Egypt — Last Saturday, someone broke into an electricity control room here and threw a switch. Suddenly, Port Tawfiq, the vast shipyard that marks the southern entrance to the Suez Canal, and the southern half of the city of Suez went dark.

Ten minutes later, the lights came back on. But in that short time, disgruntled workers who've been on strike here for the last three weeks had made their point: The Suez Canal, one of the world's busiest transportation hubs, could be paralyzed with very little effort.

"We did not cut the cables, although we could have," said Emad El Sadeq, a technician for the Suez Canal Shipyards, one of seven subsidiary companies run by the Suez Canal Authority. "We had to give them a taste of what we can do."

In the five months since Hosni Mubarak was toppled from the presidency after 30 years of iron-fisted rule, many of Egypt's fault lines have come to the surface. Coptic Christians and Muslim fundamentalists have fought pitched battles in the streets. Unknown assailants have bombed the natural gas pipeline to Israel three times, symbolic strikes at a hated accord that Egyptians often blame for high prices at home. Thousands of people have been injured in clashes between the security forces and family members of protesters killed during the 18 days of demonstrations that led to Mubarak's fall.

But nowhere does the unmooring of Egypt's authoritarian system carry a greater threat to Egypt's and the world's economy than here, where the Suez Canal not only generates $1.2 billion annually for Egypt but also is a major transportation corridor for ships and cargo moving between Europe and Asia.

Workers for the subsidiary companies complain bitterly about their low wages: The average income here, workers say, is about $130 a month. They note that employees who work for the canal authority itself make far more. The unfairness of the situation, they complain, is laid bare by the canal authority's most recent financial report, which shows quarterly revenues up $100 million over last year.

"How am I supposed to support my family? I have a daughter and I support my mother as well," said Hamdy Saleh, 33, a Suez Canal shipyard technician. "I am fed up."

As for Saturday's electricity outage, Saleh, too, said it could have been worse.

"This time it was peaceful, but next time, we will dismantle the floating dock to block the canal totally," he said.

That could be disastrous. An average of 50 ships cross the Suez Canal in both directions each day. On June 24, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Enterprise crossed the canal headed toward waters off Libya. On June 18, the USS George Washington crossed on its way to the Gulf of Aden from Libya.

The so-called subsidiary companies employ 9,000 workers who control nearly all the canal's functions, from dock and port maintenance to moving ships in and out. They make up about half the canal's workforce.

During Mubarak's rule, labor strife was practically nonexistent here. But in the months since Mubarak fell, canal workers have staged sporadic strikes, including the current one, which has idled 1,200 workers for the Suez Canal Shipyards Co., the most profitable of the subsidiaries.

The strike has cost the company about $5 million in fees, and may cost it more in penalties paid to shipping companies that have sued because contracted work hasn't been performed. Six foreign and Egyptian ships have been stranded in the canal's dry docks awaiting maintenance, while two others, work completed, can't leave because workers won't operate the floating dock needed to let them to sail away. Other ships stand by awaiting repair.

But the biggest threat is the strike will spread or that frustrated workers will take steps that truly shut down operations.

"They now understand what we are capable of, especially those young and fed-up technicians," said Khalid Saleh, an officer of the Suez Canal Shipyards Workers' Union.

Saturday's electricity outage apparently got the attention of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military panel that's run Egypt since Mubarak's resignation Feb. 11. After largely attempting to ignore the strike, the council invited a workers' committee to meet on the issues.

Saleh said the workers met with Gen. Mohammed Farid, the commander of the Egyptian Third Army, and Adm. Ahmed Fadel, the head of the Suez Canal Authority, and outlined their demands: an immediate 40 percent wage increase, a 7 percent annual raise and "proper life and health insurance." The workers also demanded the release of five co-workers who are facing military trials for participating in demonstrations.

Farid, Saleh said, told the workers' committee that the supreme council's chairman, Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, had ordered him to resolve the issue. But Farid made no promises, Saleh said.

"I hope they come back to us with a satisfactory solution in a few days or we will go on full strike and paralyze the canal," Saleh said. "We've tried all possible peaceful ways of protesting."

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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