CAIRO: Working long hours and under a tight deadline, the more than 100,000 workers laboring on the Suez Canal expansion project—the so called “New Suez Canal”—have dug in, putting family and other priorities to the side as they toil on the government’s latest and most ambitious infrastructure and prestige project.
“The work here does not stop, we work day and night, the sooner the project is completed the sooner we all get benefits,” stated Khaled Ali, a 30-year-old worker originally from Aswan, in comments to The Cairo Post.
On Aug. 5, 2014, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi announced the establishment of a new waterway aimed at expanding the canal’s capacity to receive ships by adding a new branch of the canal parallel to the current one.
Opened in 1869, around 100,000 workers from all over Egypt died digging the original canal—one of the most dynamic national projects ever and among the greatest waterways in history. It connected the Red and Mediterranean Seas, bypassing the need to sail all the way around Africa, and as such, holding the canal became a strategic imperative for Egypt and foreign powers alike.
Sisi said he wants the “New Canal” project to be completed within a year. Its constructions is divided into two parts: The first phase will be digging a new canal for 35 kilometers, and the second will be deep water drilling to widen the capacity of the current canal for another 37 kilometers.
The original canal took 10 years to complete, and even though modern technology has shortened construction time, completing the canal in just one year is still an ambitious task, and not one that allows workers to relax. Ali said his shift is nearly nine hours a day, as he works on one of the backhoe loaders.
“In general, work starts at 6 a.m. and ends at midnight in rotating shifts,” Ali said while explaining the work process and the tasks assigned to different workers on different pieces of equipment.
More than 50 contracting companies have brought workers from all over Egypt to the project’s first phase, which is expected to take a couple months.
“Excavation work should be finished by December so that dredgers can start working,” a senior army official on the construction site told The Cairo Post, adding that the number of workers has increased rapidly.
“A new team is deployed to the working site frequently. The team consists of the truck, a backhoe loader, other equipment and affiliated workers,” the army major added.
In the middle of the desert, trucks and backhoe loaders can be seen in action, surrounded by small white tents and wicker huts, and groups of workers scurrying to and fro.
They sing and cheer while working in an attempt to stay motivated, and are enthusiastic about seeing visitors.
Some have a come a long way to Sinai and must keep up the positive energy, knowing it will be a while before they return home. Others have coped with potential homesickness by bringing their families to areas closer to the project.
Abdul Rahman is a 22-year-old worker from Arish. “I just got married,” he told The Cairo Post. He came to work on the new project and brought his wife to stay in Ismailia.
Higher level workers—like contractors and truck drivers—have different types of shifts, extended over a longer period to cover more hours of the day, but they include short breaks and do not require a 24-hour presence on the site.
According to Army Corps of Engineers head Kamel el-Wazir, a total of 180 million cubic meters of soil, sand and rock must be removed in this project, of which nearly 40 million had been removed as of Thursday.
Hassan al-Ayadi, a 42-year-old truck driver from Ismailia, said that they remove as much as 2 million cubic meters of earth a week.
“We are supposed to dig 25 meters down,” Ali added.
Asked about their expectations, workers said their first salaries after a month and a half of work were due on Sept. 18, but told The Cairo Post that they have been taking advances of up to 500 EGP from their salaries on a weekly basis.
None of them were able to state the exact salary they will be receiving, but Abdul Rahman spoke of amounts ranging between 3,000 EGP-4,000 EGP, and said it was an acceptable average sum of money for them.
The project has also opened doors for other temporary job opportunities. Coffee shops and small restaurants have been established with an average of two to three cooks and waiters per place per shift.
“We serve meals to army officers and contractors. Weekends are usually not so busy because many return home,” said one of the waiters.
Workers cannot afford to eat at these establishments on a daily basis, but the workers said their companies are responsible for providing food, and seemed satisfied.
“We eat meat or chicken two or three times a week,” Ayadi said.
Additionally, there is one medical clinic on the site, which has working vehicles and an ambulance for workers to use in addition to pharmacies and field hospitals.
“Most workers’ injuries come from scorpions and snakes,” a medical team staffer named Ibrahim Allam told The Cairo Post. “There are some injuries related to work, but they are usually not serious.”
Allam explained that there were four doctors available on call, in addition to two regularly stocked pharmacies. In emergency cases, patients usually receive first aid and triage until transferred to better facilities in Ismailia.
Workers usually remain and sleep at the construction site between shifts. They rest in simple tents or wicker huts.
Contractors and drivers move more freely due to the nature of their work, which requires them to transport construction material. Ayadi, who lives in Ismailia, goes home every night.
Others go home for a day once a week, or for two days—like Abdul Rahman does—every 15 days. He said this was his choice, as he prefers to have two days off with his wife instead of one.
Despite the long hours and distance from loved ones, workers are not disheartened, and take pride in their accomplishments so far.
“See? We successfully reached underground water,” Abdul Rahman shouted excitedly while showing The Cairo Post a small, freshly unearthed underground stream.
“Six generations ago my ancestors were among those who worked digging the Suez Canal. Now here I am,” Ayadi added beaming.