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Egytpt: Al-Mehalla textile workers leads the struggle

Reprinted from the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram.

Workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company continue to be in the
vanguard of workers’ fighting for their rights, reports Faiza Rady

“We negotiated with the military and settled our three-day-long strike on Sunday, 19 February,” Nagy Haydar told Al-Ahram Weekly. Haydar is a veteran workers’ rights activist at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, the largest of the public sector mills located in the industrial town of Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra in the northern Delta.

The Al-Mahalla strike is part of the spate of industrial unrest that has rocked the country in the midst and aftermath of the 25 January revolution. Policemen, bank employees, workers at the Helwan Coke Company, in military production, cement, iron and steel and at the Suez Canal all struck for higher wages and improved working conditions, demanding an end to corruption in the workplace.

Al-Mahalla workers started their strike on 16 February when more than 15,000 staged a sit-in at the plant. High on the workers’ list of demands is a minimum monthly wage of LE 1,200 ($215) and the dismissal of the plant’s CEO Fouad Abdel-‘Alim.

“Abdel-‘Alim will go, but we didn’t get the minimum wage. Instead the army pledged to increase our production incentives by 25 per cent. This is negligible in terms of income, and it won’t do anything to improve our lives,” says Haydar.

The army also pledged to adjust pay scales to take account of compulsory military service which will entail a salary increase though will not result in the majority of Misr workers earning the demanded minimum wage.

“Currently we can only put food on the table and meet the most basic of expenses by working overtime and, even so, we barely make ends meet. This places strains on our marriages and our family life,” adds Haydar.

Egyptian textile workers figure at the bottom of the regional pay scale. According to the American Chamber of Commerce they earn 92 per cent less than workers doing similar jobs in Israel, 81 per cent less than in Turkey and 65 per cent less than in Tunisia. The UN World Food Programme categorises Egypt as a low-income, food-deficit country with high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition. Almost 14.2 million people, or 20 per cent of the population, live on less than $1 a day, below the line set for extreme poverty. Tens of millions of others live below the $2 per day global poverty level set by the International Monetary Fund.

“We only settled for the army’s offer because our main demand was to get rid of Abdel-‘Alim, who was bankrupting the mill,” says veteran activist Al-Sayed Habib. “Since 2008 Abdel-‘Alim’s mismanagement of the plant has led to an accumulated debt of over LE 400 million.”
Over and above mismanagement it is the CEO’s corruption, say workers, that is threatening the plant with bankruptcy.

“Corruption at Misr mirrors the corruption within the country. The plant is a microcosm
of what has happened across Egypt,” explains Habib.

“One of the main reasons for the debt isn’t workers’ poor productivity, as Abdel-‘Alim claims, but substitution of the plant’s manufactured goods with substandard textile residues of other mills which Abdel-Alim sells as Misr Spinning and Weaving goods, replete with the mill’s labels. As a result sales have plummeted and income has fallen drastically.”

Another reason for the accumulated debt is rampant nepotism and overpayment of the CEO’s retinue, say workers’ representatives. As in banks and financial institutions, so-called experts were hired as consultants and paid exorbitant salaries though they lacked the necessary qualifications and produced no tangible returns in either sales or production.

“These ‘consultants’ were friends of Abdel-‘Alim’s or retired workers who had served him well and were rewarded with the lucrative job title,” says Haydar.

The Al-Mahalla strike is among the most significant among the current wave of industrial action. Reputed for its militancy, the plant is the largest public textile enterprise in Egypt. It is also an emblem of Egyptian nationalism. Misr Spinning and Weaving was established in 1922 by Bank Misr as a showcase of Egypt’s industrialisation drive.

“Because of our militant history and our size - there are some 24,000 workers at the plant - we have always been in the vanguard of the textile workers’ movement,” explains
Haydar.

This is not idle talk. Three years ago it was only in Al-Mahalla that the call for a national strike on 6 April 2008 led to militant demonstrations. To forestall any industrial action in the town the government agreed to settle workers’ demands on 5 April. Though the workers didn’t strike on 6 April, they initiated and led the mass protest against rising prices and the erosion of livelihoods. Repression was brutal. Over three days of protests five people were killed, hundreds injured, and scores arrested. The government could not keep it up. Reports of the security response were bad for business and foreign investment. Following the carnage, then Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, with the ministers of labour and investment in tow, went to Al-Mahalla and agreed to the workers’ most immediate demands in an attempt at damage control.

It was the 6 April Intifada and industrial actions like the December 2006 Misr workers’ strike over unpaid bonuses that set the tone for Egypt’s wider protest movement. In 2006, as in 2008, the government was unwilling to risk a protracted showdown with this militant labour force and, instead, responded to the workers’ demands. These strikes established a successful model of protest, triggering a wave of industrial unrest across Egypt.

According to the Land Centre for Human Rights, between 2004 and 2008 1,741, 870 workers participated in demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes and other forms of collective action. The labour protests ultimately freed a space for the 25 January revolution to occur.

“The cumulative effect of the workers’ movement taught millions of Egyptians that it was possible to win something through struggle and that the regime, perhaps because it feared scaring away foreign capital, would likely respond with only limited repression,” says Egyptian labour historian Joel Beinin.

It remains to be seen whether the workers can sustain their defiance. Egypt’s ruling military council announced on Friday it wouldn’t allow the continuation of strikes, which they ominously described as “damaging to the economy and to national security”.

The military has its own, profitable stake in big business. They are involved in car assembly, the clothing industry, food production and processing, hotel construction and
the development of infrastructure projects including highway and bridge building. Time magazine quotes Robert Springborg, a scholar specialising in Egypt’s military and a former consultant with the Egyptian army, as saying that the military’s control of the country’s businesses ranges from a low of five per cent to a high of 40 per cent. Regardless of the exact percentage, says Springborg, officers in the Egyptian military are making billions of dollars in yearly profits.

Despite the military council’s warning, Al-Mahalla workers are unafraid. “We will continue to fight for our rights,” says Habib, “and if need be we will reclaim the streets.”

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UPDATED Mar 2, 2011 2:18 PM
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