Egypt's railways see biggest strike in almost 30 years

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C.Hélène
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Apr 9 2013 11:33
Egypt's railways see biggest strike in almost 30 years

right now the army is trying to force the drivers to go back to work, basically by calling the drivers to do their military service and enlisting them as train drivers (most males between 18-42 in egypt are legally part of the reserve force) . the striking drivers made a statement that they won't comply and won't go back to work.

Egypt's railways see biggest strike in almost 30 years

On

Mon, 08/04/2013 - 22:15

Jano Charbel

MENA

A nationwide train conductors 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 worker, and on Sunday morning, thousands of train conductors launched the largest such work stoppage since the historic railway strike of 1986.

The train conductors 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 conductors, 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 pay-scale 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 subunit 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.”

C.Hélène
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Apr 12 2013 08:33

State backs down on forcing striking train drivers into army

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Thu, 11/04/2013 - 20:43
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Khair Ragheb

Jano Charbel

State authorities halted attempts at conscripting striking train drivers into the service of the Armed Forces on Wednesday, a campaign they had begun the day before. The state’s “public mobilization” order was rescinded following solidarity protests and a host of legal complaints filed by labor lawyers.

The attempt to enlist 97 striking train drivers into military service came after previous efforts at strikebreaking had failed.

At a Thursday news conference at the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights, labor lawyers pointed out that according to the law, acts of public mobilization can only be issued by the president’s office in times of war or natural disaster.

“There was no announcement of a disaster or state of war,” argued labor lawyer Mohamed Adel. “Furthermore, it was not the president who issued this order for public mobilization. Therefore, this order is null and void."

The public mobilization order was issued on Tuesday by Transportation Minister Hatem Abdel Latif via the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), and was enforced by the Ministry of Defense.

By forcefully enlisting the strikers into the service of the Defense Ministry, under this decree their continued work stoppage would have been considered an act of sedition — punishable by military trial.

Train drivers had launched the largest nationwide railway strike since 1986 on Sunday in demand for increased salaries, more time off and other benefits. By Monday night the strike had largely fizzled out, and the few protesters who remained were summoned to an army barracks in the Cairo neighborhood of Sharabiya on Tuesday.

“The Morsy administration’s targeting of strikers has proven to be much worse and more oppressive than the actions of the Mubarak regime” said train driver Ashraf Momtaz.

Momtaz explained that he and 96 of his coworkers were detained at the military barracks in Sharabiya for nearly 24 hours. “We were not allowed to go home, and we were denied visitations.”

“We were singled out as being the chief strike leaders. The army held us as if we were war criminals; we were not given any food or drink. We would give money to the soldiers so they could buy us food and beverages,” recounted Mohamed Khalil, another train driver who was held for public mobilization in Sharabiya.

The Egyptian National Railways Authority (ENRA) and Ministry of Transport resorted to this tactic after they had threatened to replace train drivers with members of the Armed Forces, but had to back down when the Ministry of Defense conceded that it did not have the personnel qualified to operate trains.

The ENRA and the Transport Ministry then sought to recruit retired train drivers to break the strike, but to no avail. Metro drivers were offered bonuses to take over operating the trains, but they refused out of solidarity with the train drivers, said Khaled Ali, a labor lawyer and former presidential candidate.

Refaat Arafat, a member of the Independent Union of Metro Workers, denounced the “punitive measures” taken against striking workers.

“The authorities are quick to issue laws against strikes and protests, while they continue to drag their feet when it comes to issuing laws that protect our labor rights,” he stated.

The ENRA had also asked the public prosecution to press criminal charges against the striking drivers, accusing them of obstructing transportation and harming the economy. The body claimed that the two-day strike resulted in a loss of several million pounds of revenues.

“Tens of our names were sent to the public prosecutor for criminal investigations, while the railway authority moved to suspend 17 of us drivers for three months,” claimed Khalil.

“Apparently these suspensions have been revoked, but we don’t know if we are still being investigated or not,” he added.

Another train driver, Karim Ibrahim, explained, “We were promised that conscription would not be imposed on us again. The national railway authority also promised us that our wage scales would be augmented by June.”

“We have heard a lot of promises from the authority in the past, but none of these promises have been fulfilled,” he added.

The recent attempt at conscription is just the latest in a series of labor violations perpetrated by Morsy’s government, according to labor lawyer Haitham Mohamadein.

“Tens of unionists and striking workers have been referred to prosecution and criminal investigations for exercising their right to strike,” he said.

“We’ve seen also that the regime is willing to crackdown against strikes by any means available,” he alleged, referring to the recent use of police dogs against striking cement workers in Alexandria.

The army has also actively involved itself in acts of strike-breaking. The Armed Forces operated alternate bus services during the Delta Bus workers’ strike in February and March 2012. Prior to this, in May 2011, military police in the industrial hub of Mahalla are reported to have threatened striking doctors with military trials if they did not resume their work.

Spikymike
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Joined: 6-01-07
Apr 13 2013 13:19

I'm slightly confused as to the references to 'train conductors' and 'train drivers' in these texts - are they two different groups of workers in two different, if related, strikes or the same strike - are these 'official' or 'wildcat' strikes?

No sympathy from students and other commuting workers in this case it seems - are railway workers perceived as more priveleged than other workers in Egypt despite their apparent poor conditions?