From last weeks Al-Ahram
'The struggle is one'
The Mehala Al-Kubra textile workers are providing a model for protest, and not just in the public, industrial sector, writes Faiza Rady
In Mehala Al-Kubra, a sprawling industrial town in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, the tension is still palpable following last month's strike at the state-owned Misr Spinning and Weaving Company. On Sunday, the workers' coordinating committee distributed a leaflet in which they accused the plant's newly appointed union leader, Masaad Al-Fiqi, of catering to the president of the General Union of Textile Workers, Said El-Gohary, instead of representing labour interests.
The workers, whose basic pay is supplemented by a complex system of monthly and yearly bonuses, are demanding a 22 per cent increase on incentive payments.
"Twenty-two per cent may sound like a huge increase but it really isn't much," says labour activist and veteran textile worker Al-Sayed Habib. "The highest increase in incentives amounts to LE150 ($45) and we've only had three such increases over the past 18 years."
Average take-home pay at the plant, including bonuses and incentives, is about LE500 ($75) -- which barely places the workers above the two dollar-a-day poverty line. Younger workers, and those recently hired, receive below average wages. They are paid LE300 or less, which pushes them below the poverty line. Egyptian textile workers are at the bottom of the regional salary 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.
Inflation has eaten away at spending power that was already severely limited. Official sources say inflation is running at 12 per cent though, as Egyptian labour historian Joel Beinin points out, the real figure is likely to be much higher. The price of vegetables has increased by 37.6 per cent while the cost of many basic pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, has doubled.
"Most of us cannot survive on our salaries. The cheapest flats now rent for LE300. How can we survive if we have to pay our entire salary on rent?" asks Faysal Nakousha. "Many work at a second job after their eight-hour shifts. They end up working an average of 12 hours a day, sometimes more. We don't see our families; our lives are reduced to a mad race around the clock. And we still barely keep our heads above water. For me the worst feeling about living in such dire poverty is to know that my kids are being deprived of many things."
Habib and his comrades see their protest action as part of a long-term process. "Our strike hasn't yet been settled. We gave the government a one-month grace period to make payments and comply with our other demands. This is going to be a long struggle," he says. The workers have accused CEO Mahmoud El-Gibali and his assistants of embezzling company funds and squandering money on personal trips abroad and are demanding they be dismissed. The allegations are still being investigated.
In addition to bread and butter issues the workers have formulated other, more political demands, the most important of which is the call for independent labour unions. In March, 14,000 Mehala workers signed a petition to impeach their local union committee and denounce the General Confederation of Trade Unions (GCTU) as an arm of the government.
Their rejection of the GCTU has had a domino effect on workers' protests nationwide. The 7 December Movement -- Workers for Change (the name of the coalition of workers refers to an earlier strike by the Mehala workers) has issued a statement saying that "one of our first goals is not to recognise official representatives like the workers' unions and syndicates which have clearly demonstrated they do not represent workers' demands". Workers for Change are connected to the protest movement Kifaya and view themselves as part of the political opposition to the current regime. In addition to rejecting the state-controlled GCTU, they are directly contesting the government's neo-liberal policies by protesting against the drive to privatise the public sector -- a demand every public sector workers' strike has picked up. "Important elements among the Mehala strikers are now framing their struggle as a political fight with national implications," says Beinin. "They are directly challenging the economic policies of the regime."
And they are building a movement. "I have just returned from a meeting with a textile workers' committee from the Shebin Al-Kom plant," says Mohamed El-Attar, a prominent Mehala strike leader. "We are coordinating with other workers and plan to meet with them on a regular monthly basis because we're all in this together. Whether we're industrial workers or white collar workers, in the public or in the private sector, the struggle is one."
An activist with the Centre of Workers' and Trade Union Services (CWTUS), an advocacy NGO that the government closed last April, Attar believes that Egyptian workers have succeeded in launching a nationwide intifada since the Mehala textile workers' first work stoppage on 7 December, 2006. They decided to strike after the state-owned company failed to fulfil Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif's pledge to increase public sector workers' annual bonuses from LE100 ($18) to the equivalent of two months' pay.
Unwilling to risk a protracted showdown with a labour force of 27,000 the government backed down and came to the negotiating table. The strikers and Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieldin reached a compromise: the workers accepted a bonus equal to 45- days-pay instead of the promised two months, and the minister pledged to pay them a ten per cent profit-share if the company made more than LE60 million in profits.
The Mehala workers' December strike established a successful model of protest triggering a wave of industrial actions across Egypt, including the ongoing tax collectors' protest that has mobilised some 55,000 workers. Though initiated by industrial workers, the labour intifada has quickly gained momentum within both the public and private sectors. The Land Centre, an agricultural workers' watchdog, reports a total of 283 industrial actions during the first half of 2007. In the wake of the December strike in Mehala textile workers from mills in Shebin Al-Kom and Kafr Al-Dawwar went on strike over similar demands. Railway and metro workers, teachers and tax collectors have all followed suit.
The Mehala workers have also pointed to an alternative to the local union committees of the GCTU. "Among the Mehala workers' most important gains is that they forced the confederation to accept their committee as a negotiating partner in lieu of the local union committee," says labour journalist and CWTUS activist Adel Zakaria.
"It is incredible, we actually received an invitation from Said El-Gohary, head of the General Trade Union of Textile Workers, to attend union meetings at the headquarters in Cairo," says Attar. "They recognise us as the Mehala workers' committee because they know they can't negotiate without us. This is a victory."