Sunday, August 31, 2014

Deadly working conditions, stalled factories lead to increased labor protests

Mada Masr
Laborers protest deadly working conditions, stalled factory production

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Jano Charbel

Workers across Egypt took to the streets this week to protest against dire working conditions and the government’s lack of response to their demands.

On Tuesday, two workers died and another three were hospitalized after being injured while preparing waste-water drainage networks for housing projects in the southern Minya town of Samalout.

The prosecution is currently investigating the incident, reported the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram.

Privately owned media sources have reported that the deaths fueled unrest, but those reports have not appeared in state-owned media.

Prior to Tuesday’s incident, more than 70 workers at the Samanoud Felt Company in Gharbiya staged a sit-in with their families at the state-controlled General Union of Textile Workers. More than 1,100 of the company’s employees have been left unemployed and unpaid since work at the factory was halted in May.

A local union committee member, Hesham al-Banna, told Mada Masr that “we called off our sit-in protest after some 28 hours of being ignored and locked out of the General Union.”

“We were not able to meet with Abdel Fattah Ibrahim [the union’s president] and were not given an audience with other officials inside,” Banna continued.

The protesters — a group including 61 female workers, 12 male workers and several of their children —“all had to sleep outside on the sidewalk, awaiting any response or recognition,” he said.

According to Banna, the Samanoud Felt Company “is stalled due to obstinacy of state administrators, a lack of capital investment and no spare parts with which to repair machinery.”

However, Ibrahim claimed that “the General Union of Textile Workers is open to all laborers employed in this industry” in press statements published in Al-Ahram on Monday and Tuesday.

He refuted Banna’s claims that the general union had shut its doors to the protesting workers.

Furthermore, Ibrahim asserted that the Samanoud Felt Company would be fully operational by the beginning of September and that overdue wages would be paid in full by this time.

However, it is not the General Union of Textile Workers which determines such policies, but rather the Holding Company for Textile Industries and the Ministry of Investment.

Responding to Ibrahim’s comments, Banna said, “He’s a liar and has no authority to make such statements.”

“We’ve had no wages since May, and prior to that we’d only been paid 60 percent of our total wages,” he added.

Banna said that he had lost faith in Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s Cabinet, describing the prime minister as feloul (a remnant of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime). However, Banna did not implicate President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in his complaints.

During the presidential in May, Banna had expressed hope that the Samanoud Felt Company “would be up and running within two months.” He actively campaigned for Sisi in the election, believing that he would champion labor rights.

“The presidency is seeking to salvage the textile industry, but is not yet able to do so,” said Banna. He concluded, “We demand that the government respect our humanity. Respect our right to work, to receive our overdue wages, and to return to work. We are productive workers, not slaves or beggars.”

Workers at the stalled Tanta Flax and Oils Company were also protesting this week against the state’s inability or unwillingness to make their company operational and reinstate its work force.

On Sunday, a delegation of Tanta Flax workers filed an appeal and a list of grievances with the Ministry of Investment, calling on the ministry to get the company back on its feet.

The Tanta Flax and Oils Company has been stalled since September 2011, when an Administrative Court ruling nullified its privatization contract on the basis that it had been sold for far less than its real market value.

The same court issued nearly identical rulings in six other similar cases three years ago. However, most of these companies have not yet been reincorporated into the public sector.

Worker Gamal Othman told Mada Masr that “until 11 months ago, some 480 workers were being paid their wages, although there has been no production there for well over two years.”

“Why do the authorities insist on not re-operating our company?” Othman asked. “Why did the Holding Company for Chemical Industries choose to incur hefty losses by paying workers their wages while there is no production? Why doesn’t the Ministry of Investment and the Holding Company move instead to re-operate the company and generate profits, or at least cover their expenses?”

“We are in a state of limbo that is being perpetuated by the Holding Company for Chemical Industries,” Othman argued. “The law is on our side, but the authorities are not.”

The Tanta Flax workers have scheduled a meeting with the investment minister next week, during which they hope the ministry will authorize the company’s re-operation.

Workers from the Nahr al-Khaled Garments Company in the Suez Canal City of Port Said also launched an open-ended sit-in on Monday.
Hundreds of workers from the garment company are protesting against the administration’s decision to punitively relocate 14 workers and independent labor organizers to distant branches of the company.

Egypt’s independent union organizations have expressed solidarity with these workers and support their right to freely organize their ranks.
*Photo by Virginie Nguyen

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