CAIRO: The Lotus Air offices in Heliopolis have been the site of a workers’ strike rarely, if ever, seen in Egypt. In a leafy road behind the Fairmont Hotel, employees of the company — from the janitors to the management, men and women — stay downstairs, sleeping in their cars. Meanwhile, the Kuwaiti manager was stuck in his office from Feb. 13 until March 3.
Lotus Air, a charter flight airline operating out of Egypt, is part of the Kuwaiti Al-Fawares group, which has other operations in Egypt including Lotus Real Estate.
The face-off between the manager and the almost 400-strong staff lasted almost three weeks, with the Kuwaiti manager Adnan Al-Falah stuck in his office on the third floor of the building, and employees downstairs in the street.
Al-Falah has been banned from traveling by the prosecutor general pending investigations.
By March 3, most of the employees had accepted the new offer given to them by the management, which was half a month’s pay for up to five years and a month’s pay for any year over that.
But over the preceding weeks there have been attacks, gunfire and a mountain of litigation, suits and countersuits between the two sides in a story that potentially could have long-lasting ramifications pertaining to the rights of workers in Egypt and foreign investment.
Strike or Siege?
Ahmed Ismail, an engineer at Lotus Air, picked up the story from the beginning. He says that on Feb 10, company engineers were asked to prepare the planes for flight, place all history log files of the airplanes onto the planes and remove all things on board that were legally owned by Lotus Air.
Lotus Air does not own the planes it operates, but leases them from a company operating out of Sweden, Endeavor Aircraft Leasing AB, which is under the umbrella of an American company, Endeavor Aircraft Inc.
“We were told that the planes were to be parked in Ireland because the company that owns them was worried about the planes during recent events in Egypt, but we felt they weren’t coming back,” Ismail told Daily News Egypt.
“The Aviation Ministry refused the request that the planes take off to Ireland, possibly because the state was still owed money for parking the planes. We think that they wanted to fly the planes to Ireland and then ask for their registration to be cancelled from the Aviation Ministry in Egypt,” he added.
“The engineers were also asked to make an inventory of the spare parts for the planes we keep at the airport, which are the only tangible assets owned by Lotus Air and are worth $1.7 million,” Ismail said.
He then continued to say that the employees approached Al-Falah for an explanation. “He refused to meet us and said he will sit with the department heads of the company. He said that all company activities will stop for an indefinite period. He also decided to give all employees six months unpaid leave, which is illegal under the Egyptian labor law.”
Al-Falah signed a document that was to be sent to the Ministry of Manpower Emergency Fund indicating that company activities would halt.
In an interview with DNE, Al-Falah pointed out that he only signed this document to aid the employees in submitting a request to the Emergency Fund for compensation since work had stopped since the events of Jan. 25.
However, employees of Lotus Air felt that the company was about to close down, and demanded their severance pay. After being refused they began the strike on Feb 13.
According to Ismail, on Feb 14, a representative from the Ministry of Manpower met with Al-Falah, who told her that he was closing the company for “economic reasons,” reducing the compensation from $17 million to $6.2 million and he still wouldn’t pay it.
However, Al-Falah denied to DNE ever saying the company would close down when meeting with the ministry representative.
Ismail said, “The next night, Feb 14, we were attacked by people in four microbuses emblazoned with the Lotus Real Estate logo on the sides. We stood to face them; one microbus ran into two of us, one of whom was badly injured. We weren’t armed so we broke off the branches from the trees to defend ourselves.”
He continued, “We were many so they drove past and then one microbus stopped and let out dogs that were set loose on us. Also one of them fired two shots in the air and one on the ground. A police car had been trailing them and that’s why they didn’t stop. The army managed to catch one microbus at a checkpoint later.”
Sameh Awny, a Lotus Air Cabin Crew Purser for seven years, confirmed this account to DNE: “They were four microbuses, they hit two of our people, one was badly injured, they also fired three shots, two in the air and one on the ground. Then the police chased after them.”
Ismail continued, “We filed complaints to the police against Al-Falah and Amani El-Bortoqali, who heads Lotus Real Estate here in Egypt. The police also filed a report against Lotus Real Estate and took some of us as witnesses.” All the reports were filed under number 1642 Misdemeanors in the district of Nozha.
“We then went to the public prosecutor who referred us to the district attorney of Al-Nozha who has launched investigations,” Ismail said.
“After this pressure, he [Al-Falah] agreed to pay, and sent us lawyers from the Shalakany firm to negotiate. We were looking for severance of a month’s pay for every year under five [years of service in the company], and a month and a half’s pay for every year over five.
“They offered us a month’s pay for every year irrespective of the duration. We refused because we’d already let go of half our rights and because of the attack on Feb 14. We’re Egyptians in our country and after Jan. 25 things are different.”
Questions sent to the Shalakany law firm were not answered by press time.
According to Ismail, negotiations continued until Feb. 19, then “their strategy changed and they came up with a document that stated that the board of directors in Kuwait had convened and announced that the company was not closing down. The document was dated Feb. 17 even though they were negotiating with us up until Feb. 19 as if the company was closing down. We received this document on Feb. 21. We were also given another document on the same day — dated Feb. 15 — that Adnan Al-Falah had been relieved from his post as general manager of Lotus Air.”
“After negotiations broke down they filed many complaints against us via the Shalakany law firm that we destroyed company property and stole documents from the company that we leaked, as well as firing at Al-Falah. They listed six names from the employees as the main culprits. These complaints were filed Feb. 19,” Ismail said.
The company that legally owns the planes, Endeavor Aircraft Leasing in Sweden, sent a request to the Ministry of Civil Aviation to cancel the registration of the airplanes on Feb. 21.
Another incident occurred prior to negotiations when one of the employees was involved in an altercation with other workers and fired two shots in the air. He was sent home and told not to return.
On the third floor of the four-storey building that houses Lotus Air is the office of the General Manager. Adnan Al-Falah remained in the office since Feb 13 and was guarded by two military police soldiers. He was attended by Kuwaiti embassy official Waleed Al-Masoud.
Al-Falah’s version of events differs markedly from the employees’, and he states that he is being held hostage in his office for ransom. “What power do they have to keep me here against my will? Is it the power of the law? Or is it the law of the jungle? The company is not closing down and the board of directors is asking them to go back to work and they are refusing to do so,” he told DNE.
“No law whether in Egypt or anywhere else allows you to hold a person for ransom, and that is what I’m calling it, ransom. Do they represent the legal authorities in Egypt? I’m a person who used to be manager and out of fear that I might be coerced into doing their bidding the company has removed me from my post. And now I’m a Kuwaiti citizen being held hostage against my will. What they are doing is a crime punishable by law,” Al-Falah said
Asked about the position of the Egyptian authorities in all this he said, “The Egyptian authorities are protecting me and I’m due to meet the prosecutor general. The situation in Egypt now is that there’s a little lack of security and no authority wants a direct confrontation with the people.”
Regarding the loss of the three planes that Lotus Air operates in Egypt (a fourth one had been moved before the Egyptian revolution), Al-Falah said, “The planes were to fly to Ireland based on the decision of the legal owners of the planes. I came from Kuwait Feb. 12 and was at the office Feb. 13. There were representatives of the leasing company in Cairo and when they saw what was happening they sent the request to cancel the registration of the planes.”
Asked about the night of Feb. 14 when thugs reportedly attacked the employees, Al-Falah responded, “I’m locked up here and I don’t know what’s going on downstairs.”
Kuwaiti Embassy official Al-Masoud told DNE: “We tried to solve this issue in a friendly fashion but they have demands we could not comply with. They should refer their complaints to the law and not use violence. The current situation in the country is being exploited.”
Al-Masoud confirmed that Al-Falah has been banned from traveling by the prosecutor general pending investigations.
Al-Falah also countered the initial number quoted by the Ministry of Manpower representative was $17 million, claiming it was closer to $9 million. Regarding the document claiming the company would halt its activities, he said, “I signed that request to halt the company’s activities in good faith to help the employees under the advice of the head of personnel. They only have a copy of this document, not the original and it was never sent out of the office.”
Future for investors
Both Al-Falah and Al-Masoud stated that the current situation could have consequences regarding the desire of Kuwaiti investors to come to Egypt.
“What kind of message does this send to Kuwaiti or other Gulf investors? What happened to me can happen to anyone,” Al-Falah said.
Al-Masoud said, “This issue has caused a problem in Kuwait; there are 30,000 Kuwaiti investors in Egypt and this will make them think. The people downstairs were ruled by their fear; they built this whole thing on things they heard. Everything must be settled by law and no other way.”
Al-Falah was quick to point out however that this was not a reflection of Egyptians as a whole, saying, “We won’t forget how Egyptians have always stood by us, whether during the Iraqi invasion and ever since then, we don’t want this to change. I will get out of this by adhering to the law.”
And so the impasse continued into its third week. Earlier this week according to Khaled Amin, one of the two who had been hit by the microbuses during the night of Feb. 14, Lotus Real Estate again stepped in and offered the Lotus Air technicians their severance after making them sign resignation letters on Feb. 27 and Feb. 28.
Amin also alleged that to do so, the employees were given kickbacks under the table.
By March 3, only 12 employees remained on strike, those who had filed the complaints to the police, including Amin and Ismail. They were also being offered the deal and are mulling over accepting it or not. As for Al-Falah, he left the premises on March and drove off in a Military Police vehicle.