Saturday, July 4, 2009

Egypt's Strike Wave Continues

The “N-Word”
A political taboo for two decades, nationalization is a recurrent demand in the latest wave of labour strikes in privatized textile firms. Hossam el-Hamalawy reports

The Nile Delta village of Mit Hebeish, 10 minute drive from the southern entrance of the city of Tanta on the Cairo-Alexandria Agricultural Road, is usually a quite place, whose peace briefly gets disturbed every now and then by a microbus driver honking or a tok-tok acrobating its way across the nearby railway lines. Over the past month, however, the town saw Central Security Forces troops clashing with workers several times, amid a militant strike by one thousand workers in Tanta Flax and Oil Company.

Machines in the flax processing plant came to halt on 31 May, with strikers’ demands including: their 7% annual bonus unpaid from July 2008, raising their daily food allowance from LE32 to LE90 (as decreed by the government following the September 2007 strike in Mahalla) and the reinstatement of nine sacked workers including two trade unionists. For 33 days now the workers have been sleeping in the factory, sometimes bringing their families.

A marble signpost on the entrance of the factory once proudly declared the premise to be nationalized and re-inaugurated by Egypt’s former president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s. The signpost today is fractured, stained with paint, and missing chunks of marble that fell over the years. It is telling of the factory’s conditions.

“The company was privatized four years ago,” said 43-year-old Akkad Tantawi who is among the nine sacked workers. “They sold it to a Saudi investor who has turned our lives into hell. This is the fourth strike we stage in four years. Every year there is one strike.”
From roughly 2,500 workers constituting the factory’s labor force prior to privatization, the number fell down to 1,000 today, due to policies by the management to liquidate the firm, says the workers.

“The company’s ten factories are located on 74 feddans,” said striker Safwat Michel. “The investor wants to sell the plant as real estate. He’ll make a fortune out of this. Do you know how much land is worth in the Nile Delta?” Michel angrily pointed at the rusting machines in the light wood production factory in the plant, “These used to bring wealth. Now they do nothing. The investor promised to modernize the machinery when the company was privatized. We saw nothing of that.”

The accusation of liquidating businesses in the Nile Delta to be sold as real estate is regularly made by other strikers. For example, the Mansoura-Espana Garments Company workers, involved in a series of industrial actions since 2006, accused the owning United Bank of trying to sell the factory to a local businessman as land property. Mahalla workers made similar accusations against their state-owned company in 2007.

The machines in Tanta Flax and Oil Company factories are aging, and so is the labor force. The company, says the workers, deliberately stopped hiring new recruits, a policy which the state-run management was slowly enforcing a decade earlier with the restructuring of the textile sector. The average age of strikers, observed Al-Masry Al-Youm during a field visit, was well above 35 years. Most workers came from peasant backgrounds and did not necessarily receive elementary schooling. Striker Safwat Michel estimated 60% of the labor force depended on extra sources of income like farming the land. Labor experts usually contrast this “traditional” working class, with the “new” working class in cities like the 6th of October, Obour, 10th of Ramadan and Port Said, who are usually younger with higher rates of literacy.

Most production workers interviewed by Al-Masry Al-Youm received on average LE500 a month each, including bonuses, after an average 15 years of service. Around 200 workers are either on temporary contracts or without contracts at all, receiving LE8 a day, like Nagui Halim As’ad, 46, has been working as production worker for nine years.

As’ad, wearing a peasant hat, joined passionately his colleagues in chanting: “No Saudi, No Japanese! Tanta Flax is returning!”… returning to Egyptian state owners-that’s what As’ad and workers interviewed in the factory felt strongly for. “The company should be nationalized,” said Mostafa Ali el-Sawy, 37, who was sacked two years ago after taking part in strike. His colleagues roared in support.

Since the government embarked on its Structural Adjustment Programme in the early nineties, nationalization has been considered passé. However, in past years, the textile sector has suffered with its labor force dwindling from almost half a million blue collar workers in 1991 to almost quarter a million in 2001, which may explain why the “N-word” is now a popular demand in some of the privatized factory. Last March, for example, around 4000 workers in Shebeen el-Kom struck against their Indian management. Their factory was privatized in spring 2007, and since then it witnessed a record 76 strikes in 22 months, according to local press count, amid calls for re-nationalizing the firm.

From December 2006, Egypt has been going through its strongest and most sustained wave of strike action since 1946, when the working class and students staged mass strikes to end the British occupation. The center of militancy in the current wave is the textile sector, where Mahalla triggered on 7 December a Winter of Labor Discontent with its successful four day strike. The Nile Delta textile mills followed suit with wild cat strikes in the winter and spring of 2007, only to be followed by another strike in Mahalla that lasted more than a week in September 2007. The Mahalla textile workers continued spearheading class action, till an aborted strike on 6 April saw the town erupting in a two-day uprising over the prices of bread.

Faced with the strikes, the state-backed General Federation of Trade Unions has reacted largely with hostility, with most of its officials denouncing or aborting protests by workers on the factory floor. The federation, founded in 1957, had never officially endorsed a strike except once in 1993 when the General Union of Mining, Construction and Carpentry lent its support to a brief national strike by the miners. The body is regularly denounced by independent activists as a “state arm.”

The General Union of Textile Workers, headed by National Democratic Party (NDP) member Said el-Gohary, has been under fire from the start of the strike wave. The local union branches stood against the strikes and tried to suspend them, only to be met with workers’ resistance. In January 2007, around 200 Mahalla workers descended on the General Union of Textile Workers’ headquarters in Cairo’s Shoubra el-Mazzallat district. In a stormy meeting with Gohary, they demanded the impeachment of their local union bureaucrats, and threatened to launch a parallel independent union. The local union head was later hospitalized by the strikers in September 2007 when he tried to suspend the strike. Gohary himself has been under attack, yet sandwiched between the workers’ pressures and the government’s desire to “put the situation under control.”

The success of Egypt’s property tax collectors in establishing the country’s first independent trade union in 51 years last December was an alarm bell for the state-backed federation that felt a wave of unionization was at the door step, which could be a silver bullet to the federation and its presence in the labor movement. Federation officials started adopting a more militant rhetoric vis a vis government ministers like the Finance Minister, and lent their nominal support for strikes. Gohary showed up in Shebeen el-Kom last March and denounced the Indian investors. The current strike in Tanta Flax and Oil Company is the second strike in the history of the federation to be endorsed officially by the union, after the 1993 miners’ strike.

But the workers’ patience is running out. Already under police siege, the workers stormed out of their factory gates twice last month, cutting the road in protest of the management’s refusal to negotiate. Another protest in front of the parliament in Cairo was also met with the police troops’ batons and sticks.

“We are staging a peaceful strike,” said Abdel Tawab Sheeha, 59, has been working in the company for 39 years. “The Egyptian governemnt doesn’t understand the culture of peaceful strikes however. They will force us to do other things, to do violence to be heard. They are the ones to blame. No one is hearing our voices out here.” Another worker shouted: “If the government wants a Mahalla, we’ll give them one.”

And while the strike continues, a court is expected to look into complaints by the nine sacked workers on 17 September. Attempts by Al-Masry Al-Youm to get a comment from the company’s management failed, as managers had evacuated the factory from the start of the strike and left behind only security personnel, and police agents. The latter assaulted on Tuesday a video journalist with Al-Masry Al-Youm, banning him from entering the factory to cover the strike.

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