Egypt: Private-sector garment workers forced to choose between health and livelihoods

Thousands of private-sector garment workers in the Egyptian cities of Port Said and Ismailia are at risk of losing their jobs, having their incomes slashed or being made to work without protective equipment amid fears of the spread of COVID-19, Amnesty International said today as hundreds of others were dismissed last month. Egyptian business owners have over the past two weeks publicly pressured the government to keep private businesses open, but many do not appear to have addressed workers’ legitimate concerns over their safety and livelihoods.

Calls by businessmen to ‘keep the wheels of production turning’ should not take precedence over workers’ rights and health
Philip Luther

The organization is calling on the Egyptian authorities to ensure the private sector’s compliance with labour and human rights standards, including those relating to occupational health and safety and termination of employment.

“Garment workers in Egypt’s investment zones are being forced to choose between protecting their livelihoods and protecting their lives. The government must monitor compliance of private-sector companies with health and safety standards to mitigate workplace exposure to COVID-19, including providing workers with adequate protective gear without discrimination and at no cost to the workers. Calls by businessmen to ‘keep the wheels of production turning’ should not take precedence over workers’ rights and health,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Workers – in public, private or informal sectors – who lose their livelihoods as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19 should have access to social protection measures, including unemployment benefits, to guarantee their right to an adequate standard of living. The protection of human and workers’ rights should be at the heart of the government’s response to the crisis.”

On 21 March Port Said’s governor ordered the closure of five factories in the province, following news on the emergence of COVID-19 cases in the city and the death of a worker. The failure of factory bosses to immediately implement this decision led hundreds of low-paid workers to stage industrial actions on 22 and 23 March in the Port Said investment zone. Strikes rapidly spread to several factories in Ismailia.

The government must monitor compliance of private-sector companies with health and safety standards to mitigate workplace exposure to COVID-19, including providing workers with adequate protective gear without discrimination and at no cost to the workers
Philip Luther

Amnesty International spoke to 11 private-sector garment workers, from seven large factories – each employing between 500 and 7,000 workers according to interviewees – in Ismailia and Port Said investment zones, as well as with labour activists and lawyers. Amnesty International also examined a number of audiovisual materials shared by workers related to overcrowded working conditions at two factories and letters from the management of at least two factories informing workers of the reduction of wages or compulsory annual leave.

The seven factories temporarily closed on 23 March. While three factories have extended unpaid or reduced-pay leave for their workers until 11 April, four resumed production on 4 April. Concerns remain around their failure to take proper prevention and control measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 following their reopening.

Amnesty International spoke to nine workers from five factories who raised concerns about their employers’ failure to provide adequate protective equipment or introduce measures to maintain social distancing. According to workers employed in two other factories, introduced measures were not consistently enforced. A worker told Amnesty International that his colleagues were procuring sanitizers, masks and gloves at their own expense.

The protection of human and workers’ rights should be at the heart of the government’s response to the crisis
Philip Luther

Some workers expressed fears of losing their jobs if they continued to protest their unsafe working conditions. In at least two factories, workers told Amnesty International that they witnessed supervisors writing down the names of those who went on strike, which gave rise to concerns over dismissals.

Private sector workers abandoned

Amnesty International’s findings are part of a broader pattern of private-sector workers being left without a safety net as the Egyptian government seeks to contain the spread of COVID-19. Human rights lawyers told Amnesty International that, since 19 March, they received nearly 100 complaints from private-sector workers relating to unfair dismissals, being told to take unpaid leave and accept reduced wages and unsafe working conditions.

On 16 March, the government decided to reduce the number of workers in governmental and public institutions in provinces with COVID-19 cases, and granted paid leave to workers in at least some state-run factories. However, the government did not make any similar provision for private-sector workers, who are left to face their employers’ discretionary measures. On 29 March Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly confirmed that there were no restrictions on the movement of trucks or workers’ transportation vehicles. On 1 April, he called on private-sector construction companies to work at full capacity in all locations, while urging citizens to stay at home during the crisis.

Workers told Amnesty International that they felt abandoned and were left without pay or with reduced income due to garment factory closures and a slowdown in production. They said that employers in all seven factories were forcing workers to take unpaid leave or accept reduced wages.

Amnesty International also learned that hundreds of workers on probation or temporary contracts in three factories were dismissed without notice, justification or opportunity for consultation on measures to mitigate the consequences of income loss. Thousands might also be at risk of a similar fate when their fixed term contracts expire.

Background:

The investment zones in Port Said and Ismailia consist of hundreds of factories, including garment factories, employing thousands of women and men.

Amnesty International is concerned that restrictions on the right to freedom of association and the right to form and join independent trade unions in law and practice undermine workers’ collective bargaining ability and entrench the asymmetric power dynamics between low-wage workers and their private-sector employers.

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