Cement production may be the next frontier for human rights abuses in Egypt.
In October 2014, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) released a report condemning Titan Cement – a group headquartered in Greece with cement plants in 9 countries – for labor rights and environmental abuses at its facility in Alexandria, Egypt.
Titan is financed by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group and a global labor watchdog. Among the IFC’s stated policies are the promotion of economic growth, labor rights, and environmental standards. According to the EIPR, the IPC’s environmental and social standards are “meaningless in practice.” The EIPR report found that Titan had violated both worker rights – including hazardous work conditions resulting in employee and subcontractor illness and injury – and environmental standards:
[Titan fails] to comply with domestic laws as well as numerous violations against workers, including reductions in workers’ profits, downsizing the workforce, discrimination against laborers and the exploitation of vulnerable workers. In order to circumvent standards, the company has relied ever more heavily on labor contractors, claiming that the contracted workers are not its employees and should therefore resolve any problems they have with the labor supply companies, although the contracted labor works in Titan Cement and under its management. Perhaps the most tragic violations committed by Titan Cement is its use of direct violence against workers, dispersing a peaceful sit-in by force, which left many workers homeless and injured others. Several workers were also jailed.
The report also examines environmental violations, such as exceeding maximum limits on hazardous emissions, which has infringed the local population’s right to health and also harmed nearby industries, as well as its violations of licensing and operating procedures.
On the “Eastern Mediterranean” markets section of Titan’s website, the group reports: “social and political upheaval in Egypt dampens previously high growth rates in the construction sector.” While it is likely true that four years of nearly continuous “upheaval” have negatively affected Titan’s “previously high” growth rates, the group also underestimates (or wholly ignores) the effects its own presence in Egypt has had on this instability.
“Discrimination,” “dispersing a peaceful sit-in by force,” other human rights violations against anti-government protesters, and a lack of accountability are just some of the disturbing trends roiling Egypt these days. Through its operations, Titan is reinforcing, exploiting, and expanding these existing abuses, thereby amplifying the “upheaval” it claims has disrupted its financial performance.
Labor rights abuses in Egypt are typically lost somewhere beneath the arbitrary arrests of journalists and the massacre of peaceful protesters. But, the EIPR’s allegations against Titan turn the spotlight directly on the exploitation of workers, while Egypt’s government – and the IFC – turns a blind eye toward the abuse and impoverishment of Egyptians.
In practice, then, the Egyptian state is not only violently cracking down against those who protest against state-sponsored abuse. It is also ignoring the economic plight of its people.