CAIRO: Railway workers went on strike for the second time in a week on Tuesday, bringing trains throughout Egypt to a standstill.
Signalmen, switch operators and crossing guardsmen began the three-hour strike shortly before noon after the administration of the Egyptian National Railway (ENR) reneged on a promise made two days previously to meet and discuss their demands.
The workers congregated in the signal tower in Cairo s Ramsis railway station while a delegation of three signalmen and three trade union members met ENR deputy manager Hany Hegab.
Lawyer Haitham Mohamadein – who is specialized in workers rights and who managed to enter the signal tower – told Daily News Egypt that the ENR s 62,000 signalmen and switch operators are demanding wage parity with train drivers.
“Signalmen, switch operators and crossing guardsmen earn between LE 200 and LE 700 a month while train drivers get between LE 700 and LE 1,500, Mohamedein explained.
“While train drivers receive an occupational hazard allowance of LE 200 per month, the equivalent allowance for these workers is only between LE 20 and LE 70.
“In addition to an increase in this allowance they are calling for a bonus equivalent to 20 percent of their salary.
Mohamedein says that crossing guardsmen have particular grievances.
“Crossing guardsmen work 12 hours a day and are not reimbursed for the four hours of overtime they work in addition to their basic eight hours. They are also forced to work on national holidays and again do not receive compensation due to them for this. At the end of the month they are simply given an extra payment of between LE 20 and LE 70 on top of their basic wage.
Mohamdein says that qualified crossing guardsmen who have worked for 10 years or more on the railways are also being passed over for promotion.
He says that the ENR is instead appointing new workers from outside the ENR to these positions “because they don t have to pay them as much.
Negotiations ended on Tuesday with a promise from ENR management that a response to their demands would be given within 48 hours.
Train drivers meanwhile are also waiting for a response from ENR management concerning their demand for an increase in the kilo allowance , a payment based on the number of kilometers traveled.
Around 200 to 300 drivers congregated on the tracks of Cairo s Ramsis Station last Tuesday, preventing trains from moving for four hours.
Train drivers in other parts of Egypt were also on strike, according to those in Ramsis.
The action – the third of its kind in three months – forms part of a series of protests organized by ENR blue collar workers who have long complained of low pay, poor working conditions and inaction by the state-controlled official trade union.
Per Bjorklund, a journalist based in Cairo who covers labor issues, says on his blog “Egypt and Beyond that separate and specific demands have prevented workers in the ENR s various sectors from taking united strike action.
“While drivers, conductors, maintenance workers, and now signal operators have all taken separate industrial action during the last two years, they have not been able to present a united front towards the management, Bjorklund says.
“This is in part because their financial situation is very different – many drivers earn between LE 700-1,700 a month, while maintenance workers can earn less than LE 200 – but also because of the diverse nature of their demands: drivers for example have asked for an increase in the kilometer allowance, which does not apply to signal operators or maintenance workers.
“Differences like these are constantly exploited by management and exacerbated by the general ineffectiveness of the state-controlled union.
According to Mohamedein, however, railway workshop workers have announced their intention to join train drivers on strike if the latter s demands are not met and they resume industrial action.
Mohamedein suggests that ENR management will have no alternative but to respond to workers demands or risk paralysis of what is a vital artery in Egypt s transport infrastructure.