Egypt's limestone quarries offer hardscrabble wage to workers

Minya (Egypt) (AFP) –


Covered in fine white dust, labourers at a limestone quarry in southern Egypt toil in brutal conditions with little workplace safety for paltry pay.

Labourers work in shifts at the quarry in the so-called White Mountain east of the river Nile outside Minya, about 265 km south of the capital Cairo.

At noon, the morning shift clocks out and the afternoon workers arrive to begin their seven hour shift. But first they gather to share a communal lunch.

Under a makeshift palm frond shelter in the middle of the quarry, the workers sit on a ragged blanket to fill themselves on a humble meal of bread, cheese and eggs.

Then they don goggles and wrap scarves around their faces in an attempt to keep out the clouds of white powder thrown up by the whirring machines.

Huge electric saws on rails slice rows of blocks from the mountainside. Workers then stack the stone in long, neat rows.

The white bricks are destined to be used in construction, or ground down for use in ceramics.

This same stone was the construction material of choice for cladding pyramids and tombs in ancient Egypt.

The site AFP visited has 16 shift workers and a foreman.

They handle the dangerous machinery with finesse, and shrug off the dangers of a job where a mistake can prove fatal.

"Workplace injuries here are severe -- either death or permanent injury," Obeid Abu Ibram, a 34-year-old foreman, told AFP.

"The machines were once secure and covered but over time the safety covers have popped off making them hazardous to those who do not take precautions," he said.

In recent years, authorities have closed a number of unlicensed quarries where there has been a growing toll from fatal workplace accidents.

"Nearly 400 quarries have been closed east of the Nile but there are about 350 to 400 still operating," said Abu Ibram, who has been toiling in the same dangerous industry since he was 14.

The daily wage for labourers is little more than 100 pounds ($6), barely enough to support a family.

Abu Ibram would like to earn more, but sees no other career options for himself.

"I have been working here for 20 years. I left my father and brother and I have no other field of expertise," he said.

"But I don't like to complain much," he concluded.