Mahalla resurgent: Workers assert political independence

MAHALLA — Around 23,000 workers at Egypt’s largest textile company, the Misr Company for Spinning and Weaving, began an open-ended strike Sunday, in the first strike at the company since the revolutionary ferment of last year.

A few hundred workers and their families milled around outside the huge plant Tuesday, barely able to raise a chant in the scorching heat. Sitting beneath makeshift tents not yet adorned with slogans, talk turned to the financial pressures of Ramadan and the costs of supplementary schooling for children.

Yet Egypt Independent found that the strikers’ frustration is not only with the management of their failing employer, whom they accuse of corruption and incompetence. They are also increasingly frustrated with the political movements that say they want to support or assist the workers, while some of them maintain that their act is one that defies political authority and hence is political.

The workers are demanding 12 months’ worth of overdue profit-sharing payments, along with the removal and replacement of leading figures in the Egyptian Holding Company for Textile Industries. They also called for the purging of the company’s upper administrative layer, improved medical services, augmented “rise of living expenses” payments, and increased investment in the huge but faltering textile company. They further demand a minimum wage of LE1,200.

State authorities have told the strikers that their demands would be addressed by Thursday. Workers speaking to Egypt Independent regarded that prospect with cynicism.

Company-worker disputes

“We demand the immediate removal of the corrupt chief of the textile holding company, Fouad Abdel Aleem, and his henchmen,” said worker and activist Kamal al-Fayoumy. “Our company incurred unprecedented losses when Abdel Aleem was in charge.”

Fayoumy said about LE400 million were squandered or lost during Abdel Aleem’s three years at the helm of this massive industrial complex.

Another worker, Hassan Atef, said that “corruption is rampant within our company and especially within the holding company.”

Nonetheless, Abdel Aleem has said the holding company is seeking to meet the demands of Mahalla’s striking workers by Thursday. Pending approval from ministries, Abdel Aleem has offered to provide LE65 million in bonuses to 69,000 workers employed at 32 different public-sector textile companies — an average bonus of about LE942 per worker.

“This is less than we are asking for. Our demands are clear, and we won’t call off our strike until our demands are met,” said worker Mahmoud Abdel Galeel.

However, the holding company has indicated that all of Egypt’s public-sector textile companies are incurring losses, and thus there are no profits to be shared.

Workers such as Abdel Galeel, however, are bitter, and in no mood for excuses.

“Several years ago, our company used to make large profit margins from our production. It is not our fault that our company is incurring losses. We show up every working day and produce according to the production plans laid out for us,” he said.

But the fact remains that the Misr Company for Spinning and Weaving is in serious trouble.

“Just two textile factories out of eight are currently being operated,” worker Mohamed Ezz Eddin shouted. “They are not providing us with enough Egyptian long-staple cotton or other raw materials needed for production.”

Throughout Egypt, the textile industry as a whole is in serious trouble, and the Misr Company is no exception.

ETUF enough?

Workers agreed that their local union committee was not standing up for their rights or demands. Their local union is affiliated with the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).

Mahalla’s workers went on strike in December 2006, following nationwide trade union elections, widely considered to be rigged, which took place in October and November of that year. That strike sparked an unprecedented wave of strikes that have continued until now.

Workers agreed, however, that they were not seriously considering quitting the state-controlled federation or joining the ranks of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions.

“We are wary of dividing the unity of our company. We could be confronted with a serious problem if we have more than one union committee in our workplace,” Abdel Galeel said. “It could lead to schisms and infighting, which would result in our decline as a unified fighting force.”

Emad al-Araby, deputy secretary general of the independent federation, said his organization “cannot speak on behalf of Mahalla’s textile workers.” He added that workers’ union affiliations were up to them, and voiced the federation’s support for the strike.

Workers from the Mit Ghamr Textile Company, who have been on strike for a week now, have openly expressed solidarity with their fellow textile workers on strike in Mahalla, Araby said. The company sent a delegation to stand in solidarity with the Mahalla strikers. Workers of both companies met to discuss their common demands and coordinate pressure, showcasing a strong level of organization across factories.

Mahalla workers said other employees of public textile companies have also expressed their support and solidarity with the strike, including the Shibin al-Kom, Kafr al-Dawwar, Helwan, Nasr, Samanoud and Damietta textile companies.

Politics or no politics?

Abdel Galeel said the Manpower Ministry, Mahalla’s mayor, and a couple of former MPs and political activists have been attempting to negotiate with Mahalla’s striking workers to address their grievances and halt the strike.

“We have chosen to distance ourselves from political parties or their agendas,” said Abdel Galeel.

A group of workers admitted that they had turned away former MP Mahmoud Tawfiq of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, at the gates when he attempted to enter the company Monday, but they denied that workers had assaulted him with shoes, as some media reports claimed.

“We turned him away because he wasn’t offering us any assistance. Tawfiq was merely asking about our demands, although our demands have been published in numerous newspapers and are well-known to all,” Abdel Galeel said.

Other workers said Tawfiq was not interested in resolving their problems, but was merely attempting to score political points for the FJP by capitalizing on their strike.

Abdel Galeel added that Saad al-Husseini, another one of Mahalla’s former MPs from the FJP, “didn’t even bother to visit us. He’s in Cairo, where he’s been in contact with some workers via mobile phone. In any case, he is not welcome here.”

Some workers referred to Tawfiq and Husseini as “opportunists.”

Hassan Atef said members of the April 6 Youth Movement “also attempted to jump onto our strike and have sought to make political gains for themselves by doing so.” Atef pointed to the fact that this movement was named after a strike called by Mahalla workers on 6 April 2008.

On that occasion, the youth movement had endorsed Mahalla’s strike and called for a general one nationwide. State security forces had thwarted the strike in Mahalla on 6 April. But their heavy-handed tactics led to a popular uprising in the city on 6 and 7 April 2008, an event seen as one of the precursors to the 25 January revolution.

Worker Mostafa Halfaty raised the prospect of another local uprising in the near future. “We are willing to escalate our industrial actions if our demands are not met. Our protest may come to encompass the entirety of Mahalla city,” he said.

He said the workers were not interested in the “political maneuvers” of the Brotherhood, April 6, or any other groups.

“We have refused to join in politicized actions, such as calls for strikes to bring down Mubarak and activists’ calls for a general strike [on 11 February this year],” Halfaty said.

But his fellow worker, Ezz Eddin, disagreed. “We helped to bring down Mubarak, and we are willing to take down any other tyrant who tramples over our rights,” Eddin said.

Atef, also on the picket line, agreed. “[President Mohamed] Morsy spoke of realizing genuine social justice in the country. But if he fails to assist Egypt’s largest textile company and its 23,000 workers, then he is not making good on his promises,” he said.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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