On International Labour Day, is it time for Egypt to address work-related injuries?
Health and safety in the workplace has long been ill-maintained and poorly monitored in Egypt, officials and non-governmental experts have confirmed in light of new statistics released on the occasion of the International Day for Safety and Health at Work.
The number of work-related injuries in Egypt dropped by 7 percent in 2011 on the previous year, recent data released by government statistics agency CAPMAS has shown.
"One possible reason for the recorded decrease is the halt in nationwide monitoring activities in the six months after the [January 2011] revolution," explained Fatma Ramadan, a member of the board at the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions.
Economic activity ground to a halt after the Tahrir Square uprising in early 2011, with Egypt's GDP growth rate plummeting from 5.15 percent in 2010 to 1.8 percent in 2011, according to the World Bank.
CAPMAS puts the total number of work-related injuries in Egypt in 2011 at 17,182 out of a total active labour force of some 23.3 million workers that year.
Ramadan, however, calls these figures "wildly inaccurate," as occupational deaths and injuries are massively underreported due to rampant corruption and understaffing at Egypt's manpower ministry.
"Naturally, the absence of real scrutiny makes it possible for employers to consistently submit bogus figures regarding occupational accidents to the manpower ministry," Ramadan said.
Labour lawyer Haitham Mohamadein believes the numbers are actually much higher.
"In reality, both private- and public-sector companies do not abide by the regulations set out in Egyptian law regarding workers' health and safety, such as providing safety tools for cement, steel and construction workers or protection against harmful substances and fumes, as in the petrochemicals industry."
Egypt has 200 safety-inspection offices nationwide tasked with ensuring that firms hiring more than 15 employees adhere to safety standards as stipulated by law. The government's ability to fulfil its mandate, however, remains open to question.
"The inspection unit is short on inspectors; since 1985, we haven't had any new hires," Assistant Manpower Minister for Safety Gamal Sorour told Ahram Online. "The ministry currently has 700 inspectors and we're looking to hire another 300."
According to CAPMAS, public-sector work accidents accounted for 70 percent of recorded cases in 2011.
"This is only because the state turns a blind eye to the practices of private-sector companies, which account for most of the economy but carry much higher risks to workers' health and safety," said Mohamadein.
Sorour, for his part, categorically denied claims that the ministry was overlooking safety violations in the private sector.
"We make it a priority to inspect large firms, private or public, since accidents in such establishments have more serious consequences," he said.
According to the labour lawyer, the under-reporting of occupational injuries has been exacerbated by the practice – widespread in the private sector – of hiring workers on temporary contracts.
"Law 12 of 2003 introduced this legal loophole, since temporary workers aren't covered by health insurance, nor are their work-place accidents recorded," said Mohamadein. "This goes a long way to explaining why private-sector figures are so low compared to public-sector and government-sector work-related injuries."
The number of Egyptians employed by the private sector accounted for about 72 percent of Egypt's 23.3-million-strong labour force in 2011.
According to the International Labour Organisation, there are 317 million non-fatal occupational accidents worldwide per year, with some 321,000 casualties resulting from such accidents.
Work-related diseases carry a much higher death toll, killing 2.02 million workers each year and affecting some 160 million.
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