Workers’ Revolt Pays Off

More than 20,000 Egyptian textile workers have scored a rare win over plans to privatise their publicly-owned company, with a massive strike that forced the company’s management and the pro-free market government to back down.

Union leaders say the triumph has breathed life into the country’s ailing labour movement, weakened by repeated hits from the government of President Hosni Mubarak. The last strike in this city was in 1988.

Workers at the al-Mahala Textile Company (Ghazl al-Mahala) in the country’s northwest demonstrated for five days starting last weekend and occupied several factories to protest a decision by the company’s chairman Mahmoud el-Gebaly to withhold bonus payments, as promised earlier by the government. Nearly a quarter of the strikers were women.

Management had said the decision was a way to lower expenses, even though the original promise was to give workers a meagre bonus of 200 Egyptian pounds per year — about 35 dollars.

In response, the workers launched a massive impromptu protest in this city, some 130 kms northwest of the capital Cairo, citing corruption and plans to make the company more attractive for potential buyers under Egypt’s World Bank-sponsored privatisation programme. They also stopped work for two and half days.

During the rallies, thousands of workers carried mock coffins with the chairman’s name written on them. They called for his resignation and an investigation of his performance and that of his staff. They also demanded full payment of their promised bonuses.

The usually brutal Egyptian police were stunned by the massive numbers and the government was also taken aback. Police did not intervene for five days, preferring to send thousands of troops to encircle the workers and occupied factories.

The protests, among the biggest in this country in recent years, made front page headlines even in the state-run newspapers and mesmerised the public for days.

“The Labour Revolution” read a headline in the opposition daily al-Wafd. Al-Masri al-Youm, an independent daily, ran pictures of the workers chanting anti-government slogans and carrying the mock coffins. Others ran two-page coverage of the events almost on a daily basis for the past week.

The demonstration was an occasion for Egypt’s labour rights activists to voice many of their complaints.

Just out of union elections, the workers carried banners calling some members “election riggers” after many of them joined with the management.

The elections were held last month amidst widespread allegations of fraud and manipulation by the government and police seeking to elbow out candidates of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest political organisation.

The workers have also voiced a host of other problems.

Saeed Abdallah, a 31-year-old father of three, told IPS: “The vapour and the haze from wool has clogged our lungs. I am getting asthma. And after all this they wanted to deprive us of our rights. Patience has a limit. What more can they take from us?” “Only God saved us and this company from complete destruction because of the level of anger they pushed us to,” added Ayman Taha, 28, who works in the sales department of Ghazl al-Mahala.

“When it comes to the food we put on our children’s table, we cannot control ourselves,” Taha said. “They accuse us of doing the strike because we were infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. They always say that and do not look at their own actions. We have no Muslim Brotherhood members left amongst us. They have arrested all of them before the (labour unions) elections… This was not organised. [But] it was better than exploding in violence.”

Other workers expressed anger at the firing of colleagues who had fallen ill on the job, such as Abdelaziz Abdelmawla, a textile worker who was sacked after being hospitalised for kidney failure. The workers say the company should have supported him or put him on a pension.

Many said that labour abuses, low wages and the huge disparity between their incomes and those of the top management were among the reasons why the “labour revolt” was long-simmering.

Mohamed al-Kahlawi, dubbed the “Grand Sheik of Professionals” for his labour rights work, said workers were sometimes were forced to work on Fridays, the weekend here.

They are no longer served meals, or are charged high prices for food. Food compensation was also cut down from by two-thirds to only 33 pounds (six dollars) a month.

Al-Kahlawi complained in statements to the press that these measures may be a prelude to full privatisation under Egypt’s deal with the World Bank and international donors.

The company was the first to be built in Egypt and has since been the centre of the textile industry, which capitalises on the country’s world-famous cotton. It has a sprawling premises that spans hundreds of acres of prime land.

“We carried the strike-in because we couldn’t take it any longer. We produce a lot but get back very little. Our salaries have become so low we cannot even buy the clothes we manufacture,” Sameh Hassan, a textile worker, told IPS.

A tour of the company’s compound reveals stark differences in the living standards of the management and those of the workers.

While the land allocated for management is littered with villas, fancy mansions and green areas, workers are housed in Soviet-style apartment blocks with soot covering the outside walls. The balconies are worn out, sewage is leaking and trash has piled up in little smelly hills.

The most common complaint cited by workers is corruption. They say managers have sold company properties and land for millions of dollars but the profits never trickled down to the workers.

They also say that top managers have appointed relatives and friends to senior positions without going through formal hiring procedures.

While the five days of striking and rallies did not win concessions on this issue, the workers did reap other rewards. The government backed down and agreed to pay the workers their bonuses and promised to address the rest of their grievances in order.

“After the whole chaos was gone, the treatment workers got was really different,” said a senior employee of the company who wished to remain unidentified.

“Today, the cashiers were sitting to greet the workers with their dues the minute they walked into work. I didn’t take part in the strike. But I got my rights because of it. I wish I was part of it from the start,” he said. (END/2006)