Ever since the eruption of the revolution of the 25th of January, protests and strikes have been the most effective mechanism for Egyptians to publicly display frustrations and grievances born of the deteriorating living and working conditions. The petroleum sector has been no stranger to these incidents, which dent productivity.
Mass mobilizations of Egyptian workers were strong enough to bring down a powerful regime that lasted for approximately 30 years. However, the persistence of strikes since Mubarak’s corrupt system was ousted suggests that the systematic nature of the workers’ problems will not be resolved soon. In the wake of Mubarak’s ouster on the 11th of February 2011, predicaments affecting trade unions and labor rights have been proliferating within Egypt’s public eye. Sit-ins have been on the rise, posing a direct operational threat to the more general cycle of production in the country. In September 2012 alone, Egypt was hit with about 1,400 strikes and demonstrations encircling schools, universities, large companies and factories. Much like the overwhelming majority of the economy’s sectors, Egypt’s oil and gas industry has been affected by the problem, as workers of at least four large oil companies have announced open strikes until further notice.
Petrojet, Badr Petroleum, Gupco and Petrobel have been struck with intense protests for the past few months. Media reports have stated the main reasons behind the strikes were the workers’ demands to be permanently employed in the companies after hundreds have been laid off unfairly. Others lodge protests against a corrupt working climate and inequitable compensation. Hussein Mahmoud, offshore maintenance department manager at Petrobel, told Egypt Oil and Gas newspaper that most of the strikes organized over the past month took place in the working fields in the Red Sea or Sinai, but not in front of the headquarters of the company. He explained that the root cause of the problem stems from Epesco, a petroleum company affiliated with Petrobel and Gupco which deals primarily with HR issues of workers. “They come to Petrobel and require that they permanently contract with the company,” Mahmoud said. Since the uprising, strikes have been on an on and off pattern until workers started being more persistent about their demands, according to Mahmoud. He highlighted that most of the demonstrations are noticed to have erupted in harmony with the ministerial changes occurring in the ministry of petroleum. “With the appointment of every new minister of petroleum you find workers stopping work and starting their protests,” Mahmoud said.
Commenting in one of the articles about the strikes published in Al-Tahrir newspaper, Ahmed Mohamed, a worker at Petrojet, wrote a letter addressing President Morsy, the Prime Minister and the ministers of petroleum and manpower, to voice his objection towards the unfair treatment of workers in his company. Referring to the main challenge of permanent appointment, Mohamed criticizes how his colleagues who had only started at the company last year easily managed to settle their cases and secure a permanent position. He wrote that officials at Petrojet decline their requests for long-term contracts, neglecting their high qualifications. “Officials insist that we get hired according to our preparatory education, where we all have secondary educations…we demand fair compensation that equates our latest qualification to ensure social justice,” reads the message. In the article preceding this letter, sources have told Al-Tahrir newspaper that the contagious wrath ensued from the corrupt working climate where chairman and senior officers in the company have facilitated the permanent appointment of their relatives to ensure they are connected throughout the wider network of the oil sector. Another commentator, Mohamed Al-Masry, stressed that Epesco, which is the main entity responsible for workers supply, is an offspring of the corrupt administration of the former minister of petroleum Sameh Fahmy. He stated that the company presses on workers’ rights for the sake of high-ranking employees. “They take the fair earnings of the workers, save it and pour it into the official’s accounts,” Al-Masry wrote.
On August 28, workers at Gupco also expressed their frustration towards the general notion of temporary appointments and their affiliation to Epesco. According to Al-Shorouk independent newspaper, workers–in all of the company’s departments-have agreed to protest in the Raas Shukheir area by the Red Sea, threatening to stop drilling any wells as long as their demands are not met. As a result, the Petroleum Air Services (PAS), a Cairo-based airline that provides the oil industry with support services and helicopter operations, suspended all its trips to field areas in Suez.
Bayoumy Moustafa, a worker protesting in front of Petroject, told the Daily News Egypt newspaper as he joins the protest, that almost 400 workers have turned redundant in the span of the past two years. “We have held sit-ins and spoken to officials, no one is responding to us”. As simple their aspirations seem to be, Moustafa’s utmost hope is to get back to his job for the sake of his family. “We just want to go back to our jobs and make a living, our children are hungry,” he said.
In Petrotrade, a recent strike was organized on 25 September where workers called for revisiting their contracts and resettling their employment conditions. Many protesters have also been demanding the resignation of Saaed Moustafa, Chairman of Petrotrade, for breaking his promises with the group of dismissed and laid off workers, who have been appealing to him to resettle their cases. In a blog launched by the high committee for coordinating Petrotrade’s workers’ issues, bringing together many of the company’s protesters in one platform, workers have been criticizing the company’s head as well as censuring the regulations set in the company’s internal charter. “Rules state that a worker who has graduated from the faculty of trade should prove at the same time the he has completed his secondary education in a technical school. It is funny how the chairman of the company is a graduate of the faculty of media,” wrote one of the angry protesters. Workers praise how easy the procedures are in companies like Botagazco, Seyanko and Epesco with regards to resettling the workers’ conditions.
The blog also cites a recent report published in Al-Shorouk newspaper that reveals the corruption of 180 chairmen of large oil companies in Egypt, with claims they have illegally profited millions of pounds in addition to numerous benefits. Sources have told Al-Shorouk that monitoring organizations have spotted LE2 billion allocated only for chairmen’s ultra-luxurious cars. Reports have also shown that many oil companies have been accepting amounts that range between LE100 and LE1000 as a price for not attending one committee session that usually discuss issues related to sales and safety. Sources revealed that one of the companies have managed to collect about LE18 million while suspending the committee sessions for almost six months.
Meanwhile, workers of the major oil companies have announced an open strike in front of the presidential palace. They call for the implementation of the decision issued on 1 March 2011 that grants them the right of permanent appointment in their companies.
The issue of worker’s rights was expected to ignite in the wake of the revolution, particularly in light of the left-leaning, egalitarian values and demands touted during the uprising. As the working classes work to shift the balance and recalibrate distribution of wealth to a scale they deem acceptable, the government and the ministry of petroleum in particular will be forced to put out fires to avoid catastrophe. So far, strikes and protests have not had a crushing effect on productivity in the sector, but of the cogs in the wheel of production get any more agitated, the sector might find itself hit with a blow it cannot handle. The petroleum sector will eventually adapt to the new scheme of things just like all of the other sectors, but until then, the ministry will have to keep running contingencies to steer the industry through dangerous waters.
By Ethar Chalaby