The fire roared and all our attempts to extinguish it failed. The factory door was locked from the outside, and the smoke began to suffocate us.
This is the last thing Ali Jamal, a 16 year old high-school student, remembers before he lost consciousness. Ali and eleven other workers faced death when they were engulfed by fire in an unlicensed plastic shoe factory in the Al-Wehda area in Shubra El-Khaimah, north of Cairo.
The fire dates back to September 2018, and occurred in a factory on Masjid al-Rahman Street, which contained large quantities of flammable materials. The fire extinguishers were empty, the water was cut off, and the main door was shut by the factory owner. According to the injured and the forensic report, produced by the Industrial Security Department of Shubra El-Khaimah, which was prepared at the request of the Public Prosecution during the investigation of this case 1072 of 2019, the factory owner locked the factory and went home without any regard for the lives of the workers inside.
Ali was severely burned, and four of his co-workers died in the fire, while five others were injured.
Hundreds of plastics factories and workshops that manufacture shoes operate without a license, and no official statistics are available to report their magnitude. These factories do not adhere to industrial safety requirements, and they emit suffocating and harmful gases. Over half a million citizens living in the Al-Wehda area in Shubra al-Khaimah are exposed to these toxins. The air quality in the area, as defined by environmental standards, is no longer considered safe.
In this investigation, we documented 22 cases where victims had been affected by the absence of safety precautions in these factories. Some suffered from chest diseases, while others developed physical deformities, and tragically some lost their lives. We also monitored the absence of occupational safety and security requirements. Finally, we sampled the air quality to reveal its effects on the health of the residents in the areas surrounding the factories and workshops.
Yassin Canal … only the name remains
Until the 1960s, the Yassin Canal used to irrigate agricultural lands in the Shubra Al-Khaimah area. With the passage of time and urban development, the crops disappeared and the canal was buried. Only its name remains after it was turned into Yassin Canal Street, which is now crowded with plastics factories.
In addition to this street, dozens of other streets in the Al-Wehda area are crowded with workshops and factories, of which only 94 have been registered in the Chemical Industries Division of the Federation of Industries, and only seven have an industrial registry.
Thuraya Al-Sheikh, a member of the Egyptian parliament from the Al-Wehda region, says that the number of plastics factories in the region steadily increased after 2010. Their number is estimated to be approximately 400, in addition to 600 others in the Shubra al-Khaimah area, employing more than 20,000 people.