The Stone Movers: Arched Backs Under the Sun

The Stone Movers: Arched Backs Under the Sun

May 29, 2016

By Ezzeldeen Al-Natour, photography by Hussam Da’na

Translated from Arabic by Orion Wilcox

(This article first appeared on 7iber in Arabic)

Imagine you came across the following advertisement for employment:

HELP WANTED: Worker capable of lifting and carrying on a daily basis 50 stones weighing at least 250 kilograms each to a truck elevated three meters off the ground. Must be willing to work ten hours per day in the desert. Employer is not required to register employee for health insurance or social security, nor will employer offer any compensation or cover medical expenses in case of injury or death on the job site. Salary dependent on effort but will not exceed 350 dinars per month.

This is a real job practiced by real people, some of whom are nearly 50 years old, in a work environment rife with abuse.

Around 220 kilometers south of Amman, deep in the Ma’an desert, there are a group of limestone quarries that provide rocks used in home construction. Reaching these quarries is nearly impossible without a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a guide who knows the area. But the trip is well worth the effort for the owners of the quarries, from which they procure the best and most expensive type of limestone in Jordan, according to quarry owners and engineers.

Despite the introduction of modern heavy equipment, a large proportion of the process of removing limestone from these quarries still depends on individual workers carrying the large stones on their backs.

The position of “stone mover” involves the moving, by hand, of medium-sized stones from the quarries to trucks, prior to their transport to stone crushing plants where they are broken down for sale. The profession first began in the seventies, with the opening of the first limestone quarries in Jordan. At that time, most stone movers were either Egyptian or Jordanian—but Jordanians no longer take up the profession. There were stone movers at quarries in Ruweishid, near the Iraqi border, and in Mushaqqar, near Madaba. But now the profession only exists in Ma’an.

The owners of older stone crushing plants demand the stones from Ma’an because their machinery cannot break up larger stones. Afraid that the smaller stones will be damaged if moved by tractors or modern equipment, the plant owners hire stone movers to carry them on their backs.

Tal’at Mansour, an Egyptian quarry worker, first entered Jordan in 1993 with a permit to work in construction. He found work as a stone mover through a recommendation from relatives. Today he is one of the oldest workers in the profession.

“I came to Jordan to work and when I first arrived my relatives pointed me in the direction of these quarries,” says Mansour. “They recommended I work here because the pay is a little better than other work,” he says, “but it’s also harder than other work—there might not be anything harder.”

“I started working as a mover when I was 20. I had just gotten out of the army and I wanted to work and establish myself,” says the 46-year-old. I told myself two, maybe three years and that would be it,” he adds, “now I’ve been working here for 23 years.”

When asked why he hasn’t quit working in the quarries, Mansour says: “There’s no other way to make money. I have three children now, the oldest is 17 years old. I have to provide for them and educate them. I don’t know how to do anything else.”

A profession with traditions and history

Tal’at and his colleagues mentioned one worker who came to the quarries in 1975 and developed a tool that has facilitated their work for years to come. Hamed Abu Wajih invented what they call the yak—a small bag made of rubber and sponge that the workers place on their backs to buffer the weight of the stones. With the yak, the workers say they can carry more, and heavier, stones per day.

Despite the difficulty of stone moving, an observer can sense the pride each worker takes in his ability to carry heavier stones than the others. Each work day begins with intense activity and words of challenge traded between the workers. “We’ll see who can lift more today,” say the stone workers. But this activity quickly transforms into agitation and—at times—scuffles. But in the end, after a ten-hour work day, exhaustion has the final word.

Most of the stone movers come from the city of Mansoura, for no other reason than that the first quarry workers came from that northern Egyptian city. Those who have retired, now work to bring their relatives into the profession.

Yasser (pictured above) also began working in the Ma’an quarries in the nineties. He arrived as a 19-year-old and is now 46. But Yasser’s family knows nothing of how he makes a living.

“None of the guys’ families know about the work we do,” says Yasser. “If they did they wouldn’t send us back,” he adds.

“In the beginning you’re happy to be doing this work, but once you get older and get injured or sick you wish you’d never started,” says Yasser.

Rife with abuse

Quarry and mining workers do not appear in the yearly reports on workers’ rights issued by NGOs such as the National Center for Human Rights (NCHR), but anyone who visits these work sites, or meets those employed here, will quickly see the extent of abuse taking place.

In 2014, there were 628 migrant workers employed in the quarry and mining sector in Jordan, according to official Ministry of Labor reports. Of those, 512 were Egyptian while the rest were either, Sri Lankan, Filipino, Indian, or Turkish. Most non-Egyptian mining workers are employed either as heavy equipment operators or as managers.

According to the workers that spoke with 7iber, three people have died at the Ma’an quarries since 2012, either as a direct result of a work-related incident or as a result of the generally difficult work conditions. Plant owners have not provided the families of those who died with any compensation nor do they follow up with those who are injured on the job.

One of the workers who died was Hassan Ramadan, who suffered a heart attack while carrying a stone from the quarry.

“Hassan died right in front of me,” says Tal’at Mansour. “He was carrying a stone up to the truck and he just fell. He didn’t get up again,” he says.

In 2014, another worker named Karim al-Awdi was injured during a detonation in the quarry. A flying rock struck him in the head and fractured his skull. Al-Awdi paid for his own treatment for several days in Jordan before being transported back to Egypt where he died, according to the workers who spoke with 7iber.

Tal’at and the other workers say they suffer regular injuries during their time at the quarries, adding that they cover all of their own medical expenses because they are not registered for health insurance or social security.

“In 2013, I was injured on the job site,” says Talat. “I fell from the truck while carrying a stone. I injured my back and had to stop working for a month. I went to Egypt to receive treatment that I paid for myself,” he says.

“There isn’t anyone here that doesn’t get hurt once or twice a year,” says Tal’at.

“The real disaster isn’t if you get hurt,” he continues, “it’s if you pull a disk and have to quit working. That’s happened to a lot of people. A lot.

Article 14 of the 2014 Social Security Law requires that all workers, including those employed in the mining sector, be registered for social security. While registration for health insurance is voluntary for both individuals and organizations, some rights activists argue that it should be mandatory for those working in dangerous professions.

“None of us are registered for social security through our employer or our guarantor,” says Talat. “One person is registered but he pays for it himself,” he continues, “we even pay the fees for our work permits.”

The cost of obtaining a work permit for the mining sector is 180 dinars, according to the 2014 fee schedule.

According to one stone crushing plant owner, it is up to the quarry workers to register themselves for social security and to pay the necessary fees.

“This is our agreement,” says Abu Muhannad. “They are responsible for paying the cost of the permit and I secure work for them and charge them a fee. They are free to do as they like. If they want to register for social security then they can,” he says.

Although migrant workers come to Jordan on work permits that call for a monthly salary, both the plant owners and the stone movers say they prefer to determine payment based on the number of “trips”—i.e. stones moved—per day. Whereas the official work permit affords a salary of 190 dinars per month, a hard-working stone mover can earn 300 dinars per month. Of course this is not a set salary so the worker’s monthly income can be much lower as well.

“We work as a group of five or six men and we earn between 25 and 30 dinars per truck we fill; each truck carries around 20 to 30 tons of stone,” says Yasser.

“So each worker can earn five dinars per truck and we might fill two trucks per day, but the work is not stable,” he says, “sometimes we work and sometimes we don’t.”

“During the winter we sit around a lot. At the end of the month we might barely send two notes [i.e. two hundred dollars] to our family back in Egypt,” he adds.

Moreover, Tal’at Mansour says that many plant owners don’t pay salaries on time and many stone movers work more than 10 hours per day, a violation of Jordanian labor law.

Although the stone movers work in a dangerous, desert environment, the quarry that 7iber visited, located 30 kilometers away from the nearest hospital, did not contain any first aid equipment.

 

Ministry of Labor spokesman Mohammed al-Khatib says that the isolated, desert location of the quarries does not prevent ministry employees from conducting inspection visits there. Al-Khatib says that the ministry conducted multiple inspection visits in the past year, including to Ma’an.

“We have staff trained in worker safety that have conducted inspection visits to the Ma’an quarries and we have issued violations,” says al-Khatib without identifying the nature and number of such violations.

Perhaps this explains the decrease in the number of licensed workers employed in the mining sector. In 2011, there were an estimated 1,542 mining workers whereas in 2014 the number had dropped to 628.

In Ma’an, the number of men working as stone movers has similarly decreased from hundreds to around 30, says Tal’at Mansour. “Right now there are between 27 or maybe 30 guys working in this profession,” says Talat. “In the nineties there were a lot more, but most of them got fed up with this hard job.”