Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Over the edge

Staging their second full strike this year, workers of Dubai Sokhna Ports have escalated their confrontation with management to the point of no return, reports Sherine Abdel-Razek

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Workers of Dubai Sokhna Ports hold a sign that says either they get their rights or they leave

Two ships that cannot leave the port terminal, shipping agents re-routing to other ports, either in Egypt or in the region, and the mother company threatening to withdraw $4 billion in new investment in the port -- these are but some of the immediate results of the first days of a full strike that started at Dubai Sokhna Ports Saturday, seeing loading and unloading activities grind to a halt.

"The initial estimates put the losses at LE60 million," said a manager in Dubai Sokhna Ports on the condition of anonymity. But it does not stand there. "The strike endangers the reputation of the port and I won't be exaggerating if I said that we lost the majority of the clients we gained in the last two years," he added.

He explained that the problem is not only the strike, as it was preceded by a 30-day slowdown period through which only five to six containers were handled per day instead of the daily capacity of 25.

Shipping lines working with the port omitted 10 shipments that were supposed to be unloaded at the port during the last 30 days -- this is translated to the loss of 50,000 TEUs (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units), a measure used for capacity in container transportation.

"Now these shipments are transferring their routes to other local ports, like Adebiya at Suez, or regional ports like Aqaba," he lamented.

The slowdown and closure of the port are also stripping the government coffers of very much needed custom revenues equivalent to LE15 million per day.

The government represented by the Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of Transportation have tried several times to meditate between both parties but all the meetings ended with no resolution.

Those affected by the strike, including shipping agents, transportation contractors and cargo owners, are organising daily demos in front of the port since Monday asking the authorities to intervene to end their losses.

"A cargo owner who can't get his merchandise outside the port because of the strike called me today and threatened to get thugs, break in the port and get his merchandise out," said the company official.

Ahmed Mustafa, head of PIL Shipping, the second largest line among the 14 operating at the Sokhna Port, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the slowdown cost them dearly, let aside the full strike. "Because of the slowdown ships that normally take 35-40 hours to be unloaded and re-loaded used to stay in the basin for 5-10 days. The cost of each day ranges between $100-150,000 due to the high price of fuel and tolls paid to the port."

He added that because no shipping company, no matter how big it is, can afford such daily losses, his company is sending future cargos to other ports, "the first of which will be 24 October to the Adebiya Port," he added.

Kadmar Shipping, another shipping line, sent Dubai Sokhna Ports a statement stating it will change the route to unload its cargo at the Israeli port of Haifa.

Another dimension of the problem, according to Mustafa, is that the containers coming to Sokhna Port include inputs for Egyptian factories, which means that tens of production lines came to a halt. Also, exports from Egypt to the Far East, including ceramics and agricultural products, are being accumulated at the port.

The losses are huge to all parties. "I hope the management does not give in to the workers' demands this time. In the February strike, we all lost: the shipping agencies, Dubai Sokhna Ports, the government coffers, and the workers came out as winners with most of their demands fulfilled."

The escalation of tension between management and workers reached a peak Thursday when eight workers were sacked on accusations that they are pitting the workers against the management.

Ashraf Eissa, head of the company's trade union, told Al-Ahram Weekly that it is the management that is provoking the workers. "Those eight did nothing and we will not back off unless our colleagues return to their positions."

The company official said that management has been patient and has met all the workers' demands, but those whose contracts were terminated have several times verbally abused representatives of the management and were persistently instigating demonstrations using the company's Facebook page.

The Egyptian company has witnessed recurrent labour strikes since the January 2011 uprising with workers demanding a larger share in profits, risk allowances and salary restructuring.

The workers started to slow down operations at the port since 10 September, protesting against the fact that the company decided to distribute three months' pay as their share in 2011 profits without presenting the company's financial results.

The company official said that even this demand was fulfilled a couple of days before the strike when management issued a memo asking workers to name a legal accountant representing them to examine the financial results.

A crane operator contacted by the Weekly said that more than half of the workers disagree with the strike but are afraid the management will terminate their contracts as well.

Added to this, those organising the strike have "louder voices". The operator responded: "I don't want a salary that I did not work to get," referring to the slowdown. "The management took the right decision, but with the wrong timing. We were celebrating their decision to increase the salary of crane operators when they surprised us by the sacking memo."

Sokhna is the closest port to Cairo, with the latter's 18 million consumers only 120 kilometres away. It is linked to the capital by a modern six-lane highway and extensive rail links. Most of the cargo from the east destined for Egypt is imported via Sokhna.

The port is being managed by an Egyptian arm of Dubai Ports. The latter is the third biggest marine port operator worldwide. Alone it yields 25 per cent of Dubai's GDP. Operating 60 ports around the world it has an annual capacity of 55 million TEU.

The annual capacity of Dubai Sokhna Port is 600,000 TEU.

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