Striking Mahalla workers demand govt fulfill broken promises
A crippling strike at Egypt’s largest public sector factory entered its fifth day on Thursday as workers, angry at corruption and what they call a string of lies and broken promises, say they will not end their occupation of the factory until their demands have been met by both the company’s board of directors and by President Hosni Mubarak.
The strike has united more than 27,000 employees of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, from manual laborers to more highly skilled engineers and clerical staff, and has brought production at the factory in the dusty Delta city of Mahalla to a standstill.
Workers in Mahalla complain of low wages which leave them subject to grinding poverty, abuse by management, corruption, and above all a host of unfulfilled government promises made after a similarly large strike last December.
Workers throughout the company insist that they want nothing more than what is rightfully theirs, and accuse their managers of widespread corruption and violating past agreements.
“We just want them to treat us like human beings,” said one man, who like most of the strikers preferred to remain anonymous for fear of possible reprisals by management or its allies in state security.
“There is corruption in this company,” alleged another man “They treat us badly. There is mismanagement and they are bad at planning for the future.”
“If the chairman gave us the price of one of the iftar meals that he eats, it would be enough to pay us what is rightfully ours,” shouted a third.
In last December’s strike, the shop floor came to a standstill over the non-payment of bonuses workers said they were promised by a government decree guaranteeing public sector employees an annual bonus equal to two months salary.
Ghazl El Mahalla management said that the decree did not apply to workers in public sector factories, but was only meant for employees in government ministries and offices.
The workers’ union, which they say is corrupt and dominated by loyalists of the ruling National Democratic Party, sided with management.
Workers said the union did not represent them and staged a strike despite its opposition, which ended after management and the Ministry of Labor conceded to many of the workers’ demands. They gave the strikers a one and a half month bonus and made a host of other promises, including a commitment to profit sharing.
That profit sharing agreement is at the crux of the new strike, say workers. Under it, management agreed that if Misr Spinning and Weaving turned a profit of more than LE 60 million, then it would set aside 10 percent of that to be distributed among the 27,000 employees. Under the deal, each worker was supposed to receive a bonus roughly equal to 150 days pay.
But workers say that the management has not held up its end of the deal. Over the past year the company has recorded profits of more than LE 200 million, although despite these apparent boom times workers say they have only received a bonus equal to 20 days pay.
They accuse the management of diverting LE 40 million of that profit into private bank accounts, and say that they want the rest of the money they are owed.
“The main problem we have here is that we were promised that if the company made LE 60 million in profit then we would all get paid a bonus out of 10 percent of it,” said one man, who like the other was afraid to give his name. “The Chairman of the Board told us all that the company made LE 245 million this year, but they only gave us a bonus of 20 days.”
The management of Ghazl El Mahalla refused to comment. When approached by foreign and Egyptian reporters for a response to the worker’s charges, one member of the Board of Directors fled through the streets of Mahalla in a polished Toyota.
After December’s strike, the Mahalla workers movement began a campaign to impeach their local union leaders and abolish the country’s national union body, the General Federation of Trade Unions.
They claim that the General Federation has been co-opted by the Mubarak regime, and is more interested in keeping the regime in power than it is in helping the country’s workers. According to them, what Egypt needs is an independent labor movement.
“We want a change in the structure and hierarchy of the union system in this country,” said Mohamed El Attar, one of the leaders of the workers’ movement. “The way unions in this country are organized is completely wrong, from top to bottom. It is organized to make it look like our representatives have been elected, when really they are appointed by the government.”
El Attar and seven others were arrested late on Tuesday night and charged with the potentially serious crimes of sabotage, unlawful gathering, the destruction of public property and instigating riots.
But they were released two days later, El Attar says, after police told them that they sympathized with the strike. Their first court session is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 29.
Speaking to a crowd of hushed workers in the factory’s Talaat Harb Square just before sunset, El Attar urged them not to give up their fight against the factory management and its allies within the government and state security forces.
For him, the Mahalla strike is not just about wages and benefits, but about the future of the country.
“He built this company for the workers and for the people of Egypt,” he told them, gesturing to a nearby statue of Talaat Harb, a national leader who helped forge Egypt’s economy after independence from Britain. “Every grain of sand in this company is yours. He built it for you, and it still belongs to you.”
But the management of Misr Spinning and Weaving disagrees. They say the company belongs to them. The Board of Directors issued a statement on Wednesday declaring that the company is on a week-long holiday and that any workers who remained on the premises were trespassing on company property and would be open to prosecution.
Workers fear that the sudden declaration of a week-long holiday will be used to justify the use of force against them by state security, which they say has sent soldiers to barricade the factory gates during the night.
Each time soldiers approach the factory, workers say they have outnumbered and intimidated them, but the threat of future violence against the Mahalla strikers and their families is real.
“We have to stay here no matter what,” El Attar told the mostly-male crowd on Wednesday. “Even if a worker, or two or 20 are killed. If you leave your places inside this strike, then you are running away from your blood and your manhood.”
Many in the crowd agreed with El Attar.
“We are ready to die to get what is ours,” said one. “We don’t want anything more than that.”
“We just want our rights,” insisted another. “We are ready to die for our rights.”
But a mood of frustration hangs over the tent city at Ghazl El Mahalla, and many workers say they are angry that factory management and government officials are unwilling to negotiate. Four days into the strike, workers say the only times that they have heard from officials is when they make statements to the media.
“There are no government representatives coming here to try to reach a common ground,” said one man. “The government cannot just abandon people like this.”
So far, it seems the government has little interest in finding common ground with the strikers.
On Wednesday night, Minister of Labor Aisha Abdel Hady appeared on El Beit Beitek, a nightly news magazine show on Egyptian Channel 2, and accused the Mahalla workers of sabotaging the factory machinery. But she later called the workers “loyal, honest and honorable people” and said that she would work to ensure their rights.
Residents of the tent city say they are uninterested in Abdel Hady’s compliments, and angrily deny her accusations of sabotage. They say that they would not sabotage the very machines that provide their livelihood.
To demonstrate that no sabotage has taken place, members of the private security team employed by Misr Spinning and Weaving took two Daily News Egypt journalists inside the locked factory to show them that the machines were in working order.
“We are not sabotaging this factory,” growled one gray-haired worker, showing the machinery to visitors as a uniformed member of factory security stood nearby. “We are guarding these machines. This is our factory. This is where we make our living. We understand that.”
Workers say they want a resolution to the strike, but believe that in the end the only person with the authority to meet their demands is President Mubarak. While some workers say they want him to get more involved in the dispute, others say it is time for his rule to end.
That is the position taken by Mohamed El Attar, the influential worker leader. For him, organizing workers, as in the Mahalla movement, is the way forward for Egypt.
“I want the whole government to resign,” he told the crowd standing in Talaat Harb square, just before the end of the Ramadan fast. “I want the Mubarak regime to come to an end.”
“Politics and workers’ rights are inseparable,” he added. “Work is politics by itself. What we are witnessing here right now, this is as democratic as it gets.”