In the heart of Islamic Cairo near the Magra Al-Oyoun wall there are many workshops for working leather, what Cairenes call Al-Madabegh.
In the middle of Madabegh Street is an aqueduct built by Mohamed Ali Pasha to supply the Salaheddin Citadel, his seat of government. Next to it are workshops covered with palm tree roofs used to dry the leather that is being processed in them.
The place is both a centre for tanning leather and for housing workers in the field. Due to the pollution that the workshops cause, the governorate is implementing a plan to transfer them to the Al-Robeiki district near Badr City. But many who work in the area fear that the same services will not be available in the new industrial area.
“We can go anywhere to get leather. The most important thing for us is that the place where the tanning takes place is suitable for the work. It is a good idea to transfer the leather workshops, but the most important thing is where and under what conditions,” commented a representative of the leather industry who chose to speak under condition of anonymity.
He gave the example of moving the Rod Al-Farag Market for vegetables to Al-Obour some years ago. “The process took time, and when the people who worked there had got used to it everything was fine. When there is an industrial area dedicated to a particular craft, this works very well as long as the place is suitable and the craftsmen have what they need,” he said.
However, he was worried about the move of the leather workers, as the compensation paid to them might lead them to abandon the work. “This would not be a good thing, as we don’t want the craft to become extinct. We want to cure the patient not to kill him. A workshop owner that is given compensation may not open a workshop again. It might be better simply to set up workshops elsewhere and skip the compensation,” he said.
Last November, governor of Cairo Atef Abdel-Hamid issued a decision to start the first phase of moving 18 leather workshops from their current place behind the Magra Al-Oyoun wall. The owners were given a total of LE34 million in compensation, but only four workshops have been taken down so far, with the target being 43.
In the coming three months some 40 per cent of the workshops will be moved to the new industrial zone in Al-Robeiki. The project will be implemented in three phases, taking in all the Magra Al-Oyoun workshops at considerable expense to the exchequer.
The second phase will see more workshops built on 116 feddans of land, and the government has already provided apartments for those using the project. “The governorate has received 220 petitions for compensation and 62 petitions to be moved to the Al-Robeiki area to continue working,” Abdel-Hamid told the newspaper Al-Akhbar.
The second phase will end in a matter of weeks. “The process has gone quite smoothly due to the work of the committee for negotiations and social dialogue. The leather workshops were the biggest source of pollution in this district of Islamic Cairo, as the waste was drained into the regular system, damaging it and the sanitary systems in the surrounding areas,” Abdel-Hamid added.
“The people who deal with the leather workers are the leather merchants who buy the leather and sell it to manufacturers in the Bab Al-Shaariya district. In most cases the manufacturer does not go to the leather workshops himself to get leather as this is hard work. The leather product manufacturers have their shops in Bab Al-Shaariya, and they mainly export their products. Egyptian manufacturers display only 40 to 50 per cent of their products, while the rest are exported,” said one owner of a leather goods shop in Cairo.
“I own a chain of shoe shops. I also do not buy leather directly from the leather workshops, but through an agent in Bab Al-Shaariya. The current location does not help the workers. If they were given a new place with more room and more facilities, they could be more creative and produce more,” he added.
“If you go to a leather workshop where they are now, you will find a lack of facilities and a problem of pollution. If we compare our products to imported products, we find that the imported ones are often of poor quality while our work is good but needs better finish. This cannot be done properly at the moment because of the lack of facilities. The local manufacturers don’t want to develop it themselves as it would cost them too much to do so. But if the government moved the leather workshops to a new location with better facilities, the workers would be able to work better.”
The state has built modern leather factories in Badr City to make a more civilised area for the leather industry’
First secretary of the district Ali Anwar Marei explained the move in more detail. “The process of moving was not an idea born this year. It has been an issue for more than 20 years. The state has been working on transferring the leather workshops from Magra Al-Oyoun for some time. At first it was planned to transfer them to Badr City, but then the government decided to send them to Al-Robeiki near Badr City.”
“This is under the administrative supervision of the Badr City district. The plan is that no one should be harmed either in the inhabited areas or the factories,” he said, adding that a committee had been formed at the Ministry of Industry to survey the Cairo leather workshops. The owners were either given a workshop in the new area or financial compensation.
The committee was formed by the governor, and it stayed in the district for three months surveying the workshops.
“We started with those who chose financial compensation, or about 20 workshops, and we are now working on the rest.
The first phase lasted for a month, and then we started the second phase that we are currently working on. In terms of compensation, we pay LE2,000 per metre square. The committee includes financial experts from the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Industry. If a piece of land includes more formal construction, it can receive up to LE2,400 per square metre in compensation.”
Marei said the main reason behind the moves was that the location has been suffering from high levels of pollution as a result of the leather workshops. “The state has built modern leather factories in Badr City to make a more civilised area for the leather industry,” he explained.
He added that “the leather industry as I remember it when I was young was a source of income for the country as it was a source of hard currency through sales abroad. We used to export leather to many European countries. The state is now seeking to develop the industry through providing manufacturers with the modern machines suitable for the needs of the age,” he said.
“It is very important that the government moves the leather workshops quickly as they are our source of livelihoods. They should not close down the current workshops and move them to places without water or services, as this would not be acceptable,” said one manufacturer.
It is such concerns that are behind the long duration of the moving process as Marei explains, “if the project is not implemented correctly, workers will be harmed. We want to make sure they receive proper compensation. For this reason, the state has built compounds for them to live in at the new location under the supervision of the governorate.”