Egyptian Asbestos Workers Dying of Cancer
January 13th, 2005
|Cartoonist: Khalil Bendib|
Wrapped in a brown sweater, to protect himself against the Egyptian winter, a man turns the coals of a camp-fire to keep the water boiling for tea at a makeshift shanty-town in front of the blue iron fence that encircles a shuttered factory in an industrial suburb of north-east Cairo.
A group of men from the camp gather to chat and tell their stories to curious visitors or passers-by. Gamal Mansuer, an older man with a white beard, holds up an inhaler and a small breathing machine.
“I can’t breathe because there is asbestos in my lungs,” explains Mansuer, who was recently fired after working at the factory for 15 years. He is one of 90 employees who have been laid off from Aura-Misr, a Spanish-Egyptian asbestos company.
Today, he and his fellow workers, sleep outside the factory every night on a brown blanket under a lean–to constructed from a black tarpaulin attached to the factory fence. Eight of his colleagues have already died from lung cancer and asbestosis and almost all of the 46 others, who live at this protest camp, currently suffer from the diseases.
From his pocket, he produces a paper from one of Cairo’s more prestigious university hospitals to prove that he contracted lung fibrosis from asbestos dust. ”They didn’t provide us with any protection at all, not even gloves and masks. That’s why I have cancer.”
The asbestos workers have been camped out here since September 2004 to demand basic workplace safeguards like gloves and masks. “The factory did not even wash the asbestos off our clothes when we left work,” explains Zaid Abdel Latif, the workers leader, one of the few men at the camp who is not sick. “So we tracked the asbestos to our children. And there was no ventilation in the factory to suck the asbestos away so we breathed it all in.”
The workers are also demanding their company pay for their medical care, but the company refused. ”None of the diseases were related to asbestos,” company manager Mustafa el Hefnawi told CorpWatch. “We went to a judge and got a ruling to go to a government hospital and get a medical opinion and the government hospital said none of the diseases were from asbestos.”
Union officials say the company took them to a specific doctor who they knew would agree with them. But Egyptian government backed up the employer saying there was no proof the worker’s asbestosis was related to their work in an asbestos factory.
Fire-proof but Fatal
The decision appears to contradict most scientific research on asbestos. Derived from a Greek word meaning “inextinguishable, unquenchable, inconsumable,” the product came into wide use in the early 1900s, because of its ability to hold heat without catching fire. It was used in everything from hot water pipes, to paint, to automobile brake pads.
The chemical poses very little risk to the public once it has been refined, but when the dust from the mineral’s residue is breathed in as dust in the air - as Manseur and his co-workers did in the factories where the chemical is produced - the result can be fatal.
According to an article in the British scientific journal, Cancer, simply “living within 2,000 meters of an asbestos cement plant, asbestos textile mill, shipyard, or break factory results in an almost 12-fold increase in pleural mesothelioma.” Mesothelioma is a formerly rare, but increasingly common cancer of the lung or abdominal cavity, the only known cause of which is exposure to asbestos.
Indeed widespread concerns about the environmental health impact of asbestos has led to a general ban on production in Europe and North America and the removal of such products from old homes and workplaces has become a flourishing profession in wealthy countries.
Meanwhile, the sick workers from the Aura-Misr factory say that the basic medicine, that allows them to continue breathing properly, costs about $35 a month - a steep price for workers whose monthly salary was just $50.
Then, on Christmas Day, 2004, their situation got worse. The owner of the factory, Egyptian businessman Ahmed Abdel-Azeem Lokma shut the factory and fired all the workers leaving them unemployed.
Who is Aura-Misr?
Aura Misr wasn’t always a solely Egyptian company. Founded in 1983 as a joint venture between the Spanish abestos company Aura-Lita (49%) and a group of Egyptian businessmen, the company imported raw asbestos from Italy and Canada and turned it into asbestos-laden hot water pipes for use in Egyptian construction.
Over the years, though, Aura-Lita sold its shares, until the company was owned entirely by Lokma.
During the early years, Shaaban Ahmed, another of the former workers says “some of us traveled to Spain to be trained and saw the Spanish workers wearing special suits similar to astronauts suits, but we never got any ourselves.”
The workers didn’t think anything of their lack of protection, Ahmed says, until 1993 when some of their co-workers fell ill and died.
“After awhile our friend Muhsen Afifi died: although he was an accountant and far from the fatal dust, he contracted blood cancer. In 1995 Abdel-Mounem Halloul died of enteric cancer, and in 1997 Ahmed Abul-Einein died of stomach cancer.”
New Labor Laws
Today the surviving workers have a difficult fight ahead of them. Under a new labor law passed last year under the guidance of the World Bank, strikes without the approval of the one, legal, government trade union were banned in Egypt.
“The new labor law makes it very easy to fire workers,” says Francios Clement, a researcher at the Center of Economic, Legal, and Social Studies institute in Cairo which is funded by the French government. ”For the first time in Egypt, it is legal to fire a worker without presenting any reason and now the worker must spend his own money to file a suit to get his job back. It is also legal for the first time for the employer to lower the salary of their worker if the economic times demand it.”
Business groups agree change is afoot, though they give the developments a decidedly different spin.
“The whole attitude is changing in the most notable and serious way,” explains Taher Helmy is a lawyer for the Chicago-based international law firm Baker McKenzie and president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. He says the Egyptian government has made great strides recently to make the country more friendly to international capital - including an unprecedented proposal to cut corporate and personal income taxes by 50 percent.
Six months ago, the country’s long-ruling President Hosni Mubarak reshuffled his cabinet, bringing multinational corporations directly into the government.
“The key person who has been brought in,” says Helmy, “is Rasheed Mohammed, the new Minister for Foreign Trade and Industry. He used to head up the Middle Eastern section (of the British conglomerate Unilever) and sit on the company’s international executive board. So as you can see, the government is bringing in people who have had high level international exposure, who know how the international economy works.”
All of these developments were discouraging to sick and dying asbestos workers, but they gained some hope in December, because of a decision by the Egyptian government to ban the importation of so-called “white” asbestos, which most commonly occurs in the United States and Canada.
Factories will be able to finish their current stock, but after that they will have to stop asbestos production. The decision is modeled on a European Union law which banned the introduction of new asbestos cement materials, friction products, and gadgets beginning January 1, 2005.
Nonetheless there is concern for the remaining workers across Egypt’s $300 million asbestos industry as most factories won’t be affected by the ban because they use “blue asbestos” which is unaffected by the ban. According to the World Health Organization, white asbestos makes up 95 percent of the international trade in the chemical.
Unfortunately blue asbestos is the most common used in Egypt. It is the chemical that is used at the government owned-Siegwart Company, for example, which employs 4,500 workers at a sprawling complex in South Cairo. Unlike Aura-Misr, which made asbestos pipes for domestic consumption, Siegwart produces a full range of asbestos products - from pipes to building blocks for houses - and exports them to Somalia where the chemical is still regularly used in buildings.
Company officials at Siegwart told CorpWatch that “blue asbestos” doesn’t cause the same negative health effects as “white asbestos," and therefore their factory would remain open and in production.
Valley of Death
But there appears to be serious doubts about such claims. Workers around the world laboring with blue asbestos have been suffering from the same diseases as white asbestos. The town of Wittenoom Gorge in Australia has been called a “valley of death” because of its old blue asbestos mine thaty started up in 1936. Signs around the town call attention to the problem: They read “Inhaling Asbestos Fibres May Cause Cancer,” and ”Avoid Dusty Situations.”
When the asbestos factory there closed in 1966, the town basically shut down. Of the 20,000 men, women and children who lived and worked in Wittenoom when the mine was open over 1,000 have died of asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma - and the figure is still rising.
Back here in Egypt, while the blue asbestos factories, run by the government, continue to churn out products, the fired workers plan to continue their protests outside Aura-Misr until they get justice.
“We don’t know so much about the Spanish company and we don’t really care,” explains Abdel-Latif. “But we will stay until we get our salary and our medical bills. The factory refuses so we will stay until we get the money.”
And activists fear that the problem may soon be discovered at the ten other factories across this country.
“So far there have been no problems at the others like at Aura-Misr,” says Shaymaa Sami of the Cairo non-profit Center for Trade Union and Workers Rights. “But if they are forced to close the factory, then there will be a lot of problems. The workers will have no jobs and then later, if they get sick because they worked in the asbestos factory, there will be no one to pay their medical bills.”