Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tanta Flax Workers' Demo - No End in Sight?

Tanta Flax workers' demo - no end in sight?
Tue, 16/02/2010
Jano Charbel

A conflict at the privatized Tanta Flax and Oils Company has left some 850 workers with no source of income since January. Workers launched a strike on 9 January after the dismissal of their local union head, Salah Mosallam. The company administration responded to this strike by imposing a lock-out and withdrawing all raw materials from the production lines.

In light of this impasse, around 400 workers have relocated their protest from the company’s headquarters in the Delta village of Mit Hebeish to the Council of Ministers in downtown Cairo, where they have been demonstrating and sleeping-in for the last nine days. So far they have not been offered a resolution for their grievances.

The workers had been demanding the payment of overdue bonuses, periodic pay-raises, the reinstatement of ten sacked workers (including three local union members), an increase in their food allowance, and the re-operation of the company. Having lost faith in their company’s administration, these workers have recently called for the company's liquidation and a guarantee for end-of-service reimbursements and early retirement packages amounting to no less that LE60,000.

A statement issued on 13 February by the company's legal consultant, Ahmed Atta, described the workers' strike as illegal, and accused the media of inaccurately portraying the crisis.

"There are no talks or negotiations between the Manpower Ministry and the company administration regarding early retirement packages," Atta said. The statement added that the ongoing demonstration outside the Ministers' Council "is an escalation orchestrated by political currents who aim to secure private gains."

Abdel Aziz Mohamed, a worker who has been employed at the company for the past 25 years, said, “I used to make LE450 per month, but have not been able to generate any income for the past two months. I have to pay rent for my apartment, utility bills and school fees for my three children.”

"What am I supposed to do to pay these bills and expenses? Have my wife work on el-Haram Street?” he added angrily, referring to a street famed for its belly dancing nightclubs.

"Following 32 years of service at the company, my monthly wage was only LE518, which was barely enough for my own expenses," said Mohamed Gad Allah, another factory worker. "What am I supposed to do now with no source of income? Must I steal and become a thief? I would do so if I knew how, but I don’t.”

“Aisha Abdel Hady cannot possibly be the Minister of Manpower," he continued. "She neither speaks for the workers nor in their defense. Clearly she has forgotten her past, when she used to be a worker and a unionist.”

In near-unison a group of workers shouted “no governmental officials have come to visit us or hear our pleas. Not (Hussein) Megawer (President of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation), not Abdel Hady, not (Saeed) el-Gohary (President of the General Union for Textile Workers).” The only official from the Ministry of Manpower who has visited these workers at their campsite was Wael Allam, the ministry’s undersecretary in Gharbiya Governorate.

According to Hisham el-Okal , one of the sacked unionists, “Allam asked us to evacuate the premises and in return promised that the ministry would cover our unpaid insurance premiums for the past five months, as well as our wages for the month of January. Naturally, we couldn’t believe him after so many empty promises. We will remain here until we have an acceptable written resolution from the officials.”

Despite repeated attempts to contact Saeed el-Gohary, he could not be reached for clarifications as to the General Union’s stance. At the onset of the strike 39 days ago, el-Gohary, in an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm, ruled out the possibility of re-nationalization and said it was up to the investor to re-operate or liquidate the company.

Minister of Manpower Aisha Abdel Hady was not available for comment, while a spokesperson for the ministry, Ibrahim Ali, was unable to respond to Al-Masry Al-Youm’s queries by the time of publication.

A handful of MPs from the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as independents, have visited the workers and expressed solidarity with their demands.

“The example of the Tanta Flax Company has proved that the policy of privatization is a failure,” said Gamal Zahran, leader of the independent bloc in parliament. "I will be filing an urgent parliamentary petition to this effect,” he added.

Brotherhood MPs Ibrahim Zakariya and Saber Abul Fotouh have also petitioned People's Assembly Speaker Fathi Sorour, and a special session is due to be conducted on Monday regarding the crisis facing the Tanta Flax Company. Parliamentary recommendations regarding this crisis are reportedly due to be issued Monday evening.

Ramadan el-Dessouqi, one of the ten sacked workers, is looking to parliament for a solution. “I really hope that a binding decision will be issued on Monday. I've had no source of income for the past two years and four months.”

Dessouqi added that while during the last strike, from 31 May-10 November, the Ministry of Manpower had paid the workers basic wages, but he wasn’t paid because he was fired and has not yet received a court order for his reinstatement. "I have filed a case against my dismissal," el-Dessouqi explained, "and the court in Tanta will issue its verdict regarding my reinstatement on Thursday.” A total of six sacked workers have received court orders for their reinstatement.

"I have two wives, and a total of 11 children," el-Dessouqi said. "Due to my inability to pay the utility bills we no longer have electricity or running water in our home. I used to be the breadwinner of the family, but now my eldest son--an electrician--is the one providing for the household. I am indebted to so many friends and family members. May God help us all.”

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