• March 23, 2015

Egypt’s Limestone Quarries: Picturesque but Deadly

Becky Harlan

“It’s very hot, even in December. And it’s really hard to breathe when pillars of dust rise. Workers hit machines with hammers to make noise, warning other workers that the heavy, fast machinery is close by,” says photographer Mohamed Ali Eddin, describing a typical scene in a limestone quarry in Minya, Egypt. “No one can hear the others; they have to shout.”

Picture of a young quarry worker leaning over, moving limestone blocks from a truck under a blue sky and a bright sun
An underage worker moves limestone blocks from a truck.

Ali Eddin first visited the quarries in 2009 with a journalist who was working on a book. “I visited for only two days. I couldn’t take photos for more than half an hour before I had to give my eyes and my lungs a break,” he says. But the story of the workers, taking place in such a visually enticing environment, had him hooked. At the time he didn’t have the funding, the connections, or the experience to tell the difficult story of the quarry laborers, but he knew he had to return. And in 2014, he came back to Minya with the help of a grant from the Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation for Documentary and Film.

Picture of a wide view of a limestone quarry that is very white and dusty with workers in the distance, cutting through the limestone
Pillars of dust rise as workers cut through the quarry with heavy machinery in Minya, Egypt.

In his four months photographing in the quarries, he says at least six people were killed. Ali Eddin, who lives about 150 miles away in Cairo, says that most people in the capital are completely unaware of this dangerous industry. “Nobody,” he says, “publishes any news in Cairo, or even in Minya, about what happens in quarries.”

Picture of men loading limestone blocks to a truck in the dark
Workers load limestone blocks onto a truck at 10 p.m., depending on lights from the truck and fire torches to work in the darkness.

Ali Eddin says the hazards of the job begin before the workers even arrive on site. Because the laborers ride down curvy roads in trucks that were not intended to carry people, often at high speeds, just getting to work is one of the largest risks. The powerful machines used to cut the hard limestone and high-voltage electricity cables are the other culprits most likely to cause injury.

Picture of quarry workers sitting inside of a covered truck
Workers sit inside a truck, which will carry them to the quarry. These trucks were designed to carry goods, but quarry workers and residents of villages use them for transportation, often fitting 10 to 20 people inside.

The conditions are still as hazardous as they were after Ali Eddin’s initial visit in 2009, but he says many of the workers have become more aware of the dangers. “In 2009, I used to hear workers’ justifications after accidents in the quarries. They used to say, ‘It’s our destiny. It’s the will of God, and we have to accept it.’” But Ali Eddin says that when he returned in 2014 he heard a different tone. “They told me directly, especially the youth workers, that injuries or death are not the will of God. They said, ‘Our colleagues died because of unsafe machines,’ and they complained that quarry owners don’t want to spend money on improving the machines or making it safer.”

Picture of men working on large machine in the dusty limestone quarry
Visibility is limited when wind slows and dust rises, increasing the risk of accidents.

A man named Mary Mina stands out in Ali Eddin’s memory. “He helped me at the beginning to meet other workers and talk with them and visit the quarries. He was a member of the Quarry Worker Syndicate,” Ali Eddin says, explaining that the independent syndicate was the first in Egypt to be established after the 2011 revolution. In 2014 a truck accident took Mina’s life. He was killed along with two other quarry workers on their way to work.

Picture of a quarry worker who was injusred in a truck accident lying on blankets with a bandage on his leg
Mina Nagi injured his back and right leg in a truck accident on the way to the quarry, the same accident which took Mary Mina’s life. ”We were on the highway when a truck tire exploded. The driver used the brake, and the truck rolled over three times,” he says.

Ali Eddin says that because many of the workers are not officially employed by the quarries, obtaining compensation for injury or death is tricky and depends on the owner. For example, if the quarry owner lives in the same town as the injured worker, compensation is more likely. But drafting an official complaint, Ali Eddin says, usually doesn’t bring workers compensation, even years later.

Picture of three quarry workers standing in the quarry drinking from tea cups
Workers drink tea during their half-hour break. Most of the quarry workers are not only friends but are from the same families and the same villages, so they have very strong relationships.
Picture of a young man who is missing his right leg sitting in a chair in room covered with colorful wallpaper of idyllic scenes and glass shelves that have sparse items for sale.
Ibrahem Shehata, 24, lost his right leg while working in the quarry.

Ali Eddin says his goal is to raise awareness. “I hope the government and more NGOs interfere to change this. It takes time. It’s vital to change the unsafe machines, to give safety equipment to workers, and to stop sending children to quarries.”

Piture of four men walking, two of them are carrying large circular blades over their shoulders
Workers carry cutting blades on their return from a long day in the quarry. The metal blade is the most dangerous part of the cutting machine, and it should be checked every half hour to ensure its security. Workers called it the “reaper of lives.”

In telling this sensitive story, Ali Eddin says it was important “not to be somebody who doesn’t know anything about them or someone coming from Cairo to report a very fast story and get back.” He developed trust with the men. “We talked on the phone all the time, even some of them had a Facebook account. I spent the night at the quarry, sleeping alongside them. Many warned me, ‘Don’t go to the quarry at night. It’s not safe.’ But it was very safe because I had all of them as my friends. We ate together, drank together, and took photos. The relationship was very good, and I couldn’t continue this story without it. They were very welcoming, and they thought I should be there and should be taking photos.”

Picture of a silhouette of a man working using a machine in the limestone quarry, as the sun rises
Work begins at the quarry when the sun rises. Three years ago, it was common to work at night, but this practice has since waned due to a high rate of injury.

Learn more about Mohamed Ali Eddin’s work on the Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation website. See more of Ali Eddin’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

There are 15 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. mahmoud khdiwi
    March 29, 2015

    you are best egyptian photographer i ever see i last 5 years,, Keep going you are the best

  2. Hassan Dawod
    March 29, 2015

    I’m a photographer please tell me how to send my photos to yours site
    many thanks. ….

  3. Garrett Soulen
    March 29, 2015

    Ken, I don’t know what you do for a job, but as Nicole Tawadrouse March 29, 2015: And I do not think it is very human of you to pass that kind of judgement upon men whose shoes you have clearly never walked in. If you bothered to read, you would pick up on the fact that “Our colleagues died because of unsafe machines,’ and they complained that quarry owners don’t want to spend money on improving the machines or making it safer.” So please explain to the rest of the world how you came to the conclusion the it was the workers fault that they don’t have proper protective gear to wear. Can’t put something on if you don’t have it!!!

  4. Nicole Tawadrouse
    March 29, 2015

    I am surprised to see Ken from Thailand’s comment that he thinks the quarry workers “probably don’t wear dust masks or earplugs so part of the misery is their own doing.” Really?! Uhm, without addressing EVERYTHING that is wrong with that line of thinking, I will choose to say simply this: Perhaps there are not enough dust masks to go around in that part of the world, and even if there are, they are likely too expensive to be purchased on a daily or weekly basis as they would be needed to be effective. Same is true for the ear plugs. Friend, what you would like to see for those quarry workers is far, far from their actual reality. And I do not think it is very human of you to pass that kind of judgement upon men whose shoes you have clearly never walked in.

  5. jose chavez
    March 27, 2015

    buen trabajo

  6. Ken in Thailand
    March 27, 2015

    In many places ww it’s common to take advantage of low-end workers as much as possible. Plus the workers themselves probably don’t wear ear plugs or dust masks, so part of the misery is their own doing.

  7. Garrett Soulen
    March 24, 2015

    Boubarne – Les photos seront certainement apporter la conscience, mais plus est nécessaire pour être fait. La voix des gens ont besoin d’être entendu soit par manifestation (pas une bonne idée à ce moment compte tenu de l’Egypte vient de traverser La révolution égyptienne de 2011, connu localement comme la révolution du 25 Janvier) ou par des pétitions et beaucoup de prières. Les photos doivent être sauvegardés par la voix des peuples, mais les voix doivent passer par des gens qui savent ce qui se passe. Ils ont besoin de faits, et pas seulement des images. Qui les pétitions seront envoyées à? Encore une fois, comme je le disais à Maria, seront les travailleurs rencontrer consequenses raison des pétitions? Le peuple égyptien est disposé à soutenir la distribution des pétitions? Et je suis sûr que vous pouvez venir avec plus de questions. Dire «chance à tous…”, À mon avis, ne est pas une réponse. Le véritable avez besoin de toute l’aide qu’ils peuvent obtenir. Si vous étiez à leur place, que feriez-vous être willng à faire pour rendre les conditions de travail un peu plus facile et sécuritaire?

  8. Garrett Soulen
    March 24, 2015

    María, uno de los problemas con que es saber que para protestar contra. El gobierno que está haciendo la vista gorda o las personas que contratan a estos trabajadores. ¿Cómo organizar las protestas? ¿Los lugareños estar dispuestos a participar en las protestas, sin temor a represalias por parte de cualquiera de los jefes más de los trabajadores o incluso el gobierno? Una forma posible es averiguar quién contactar en este asunto y obtener una petición comenzó. Las firmas representan la voz de la gente, ya sean Egyptions, los hispanos, los estadounidenses, o quien sea. Y recuerde, Egipto pasó recientemente a través de un gran levantamiento contra el gobierno. Por lo tanto, tendría que asumir las protestas contra las condiciones de trabajo en las canteras de piedra caliza podría no ser una buena idea. Petitons? Posiblemente.

  9. maria del carmenschiaffini ruiz
    March 24, 2015

    No debe continuar este abuso de los trabajadores,quizá la protesta de millones de personas los ayude a renunciar a este peligroso e inhumano trabajo.

  10. boubarne
    March 24, 2015

    En espèrant que ce reportage serve à une prise de conscience et l’amélioration de leurs conditions de travail,courage à tous…

  11. Florencia Peker
    March 24, 2015

    Incredible story… It’s sad to know the misfortune of these workers. Hope they’ll have better working conditions some day. Great pictures!

    • Garrett Soulen
      March 24, 2015

      I want to apologize in advance to anyone who may feel offended by my comments. It is not my place to criticize those who have made comments concerning these picks. Unfortunately the lack of empathy for these men and what they must endure astounds me. Has anyone given any thought as to what is happening to these workers? The dust in their lungs – ‘Our colleagues died because of unsafe machines,’ and they complained that quarry owners don’t want to spend money on improving the machines or making it safer.” The lack of good safety equipment for the workers, and continually sending children to quarries. Sorry to say this, but feeling sorry for them and going on with your own lives without giving then a second thought doesn’t cut it! I wrote an email to Mohamed Ali Eddin asking him questions as to concerning what, if anything could be done to help these workers without getting them into trouble with their quarry owners. If a petition was started, who would it be sent to? How did he think they would react to being given a piece of paper with thousands of names on it? How would the new government react should they also receive a petition to take action and do something to help these workers? With the current unrest that still exists within Egypt, it would be tricky, but prayer and God can do what we humans can’t. And sitting around sympathizing about the situation gets them no closer to a solution and the desperate help they need. Again, I apologize, but I can’t help but feel no matter who we are or where we are from, if the quarry owner and government got enough signatures from around the world, it would be hard for them to ignore the situation and start doing something about it. That’s my two cents (Food Lion TV commercial). Thanks for listening and yes, I would appreciate replies to this post, be they positive or negative. But just keep in mind that It’s not me you should be angry with, it should be the quarry owners and the Egyptian government.

  12. boblob
    March 24, 2015


  13. Donna
    March 23, 2015

    I love how you bring awareness of situations that most of us have never heard about. I admire the photographer for the investment he made in these people. I hope things will change for them. The pictures are striking.

  14. Garrett Soulen
    March 23, 2015

    Stunning pictures. Raw, unbiased and fraught with danger, both for the workers and Ali Eddin. Awesome.

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