|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
3 - 9 May 2001
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A labour of loveHow many ways are there to defend workers' rights? Well... there's a wrong way, and there is her way
Profile by Fatemah Farag
Aisha is hunched over her desk, talking to a group of men who are explaining, in hushed tones, the situation at their factory. They finish and wait for her to say something. She nods her head, taking a minute to think. When she replies her instructions are short and to the point: call X, go to Y and keep Z papers to yourselves for now, their time has not come yet, she tells them.
We are in the headquarters of the General Federation for Trade Unions (GFTU) and this is the office of Aisha Abdel-Hadi, member of the executive board of GFTU, assistant secretary of the General Syndicate for Chemical, Petrol and Pharmaceutical Industries, head of the union committee at the CIDE Pharmaceutical Company, a leading member of the National Democratic Party in Giza and a member of the Shura Council.
We meet just a few days before Labour Day. And when Aisha finally moves her attention from the men seeking her assistance to me, she will say, in no uncertain times, that labour is on the defensive and that working conditions are at a record low as Egypt grapples with the processes of structural adjustment, globalisation and capital development. But this profile is about the woman and not the labour movement, or so I thought.
The men get up and Aisha bids them farewell, firmly shaking each hand in turn. It is an interesting handshake, a swing of the arm, a slapping of palms, and a firm grasp. The movement seems indicative of a woman who has abandoned the demureness conventionally expected of her sex, who sits comfortably as the only woman within the senior ranks of a male dominated institution, a woman who, occupying a position of power vis-à-vis these men, extends to them camaraderie and respect.
"I was born on 14 August, 1942; I am rather old," she begins, smiling as perfectly manicured fingers adjust her head cap. "We lived in Boulaq Abul-Ela, a modest family you understand -- one of those good-hearted typical Egyptian families. I did not go to college."
From the very beginning, then, she is setting out her stall. The references are unequivocal. We are talking working class.
At the age of 14 Aisha went to work on the production line at the CIDE pharmaceuticals company in the Haram district.
"It was a company run by Egyptian nationalists such as Mohamed Nasr, a prominent Wafdist activist. At the time there were around 250 workers. Today the company has over 4000."
"I did not last as a production worker very long, however, and was moved up to supervisory positions. I was very active and moved about a lot so I guess they thought I would be more useful at other jobs," recounts Aisha.
It was Aisha's first experience of promotion, a climbing of the ladder that was to become one of the most characteristic movements of her life. Wherever she went, it seems, she always shone, was always chosen and always promoted.
"In the early years of my work I not only loved my work and took it seriously but also helped people out if they had a problem. For example, if someone needed a service I would get the required approval or help them get their papers processed," she said. Such willingness to offer a helping hand could well explain her victory in September 1959 in the first union committee elections to take place at CIDE.
"We need to re-formulate our independence as a union structure. We also need to create new cadres and we need to make it clear that union activism is not about trips or personal gain but about constant struggle and shop-floor activity. These are ideas that have become muddled along the way and need to be brought back into focus"
photos: Mohamed Mos'ad
"Again, it was not long before I moved up a notch. Between 1959 and 1964 I strengthened my ties with other trade union activists on a higher level. I remember in particular that Mohamed Saad Rageh, head of the Arab Workers Federation, was very supportive of me. So in 1964 when I nominated myself in the elections for the General Union for Chemical Industries, I was once again elected. In fact, I was the only female candidate and I received the highest number of votes."
Success followed in the face of many difficulties.
"A lot of people did not last very long in their union positions, especially women. One always came under pressure and faced threats. Company management could reduce our incentives or threaten us in other ways, so it was a very difficult road to follow. I think I lasted because I had this very strong conviction that what I was doing was the right thing, that it was a humane vocation."
She arrived at her understanding of her vocation not only from personal experience but also through learning from her colleagues.
"I learned that to be a successful trade union activist you had to be honest, transparent and patient. You had to defend what you believed in to the bitter end. I learned that loud words are largely futile and that you must take the long term view. Understanding is crucial; it is not enough to just defend workers left and right, you must be capable of understanding the bigger picture. And in the end you must sacrifice. You cannot look for personal gain and be a true trade union activist. I have given up many things -- including more senior positions and the benefits they would bring -- because I learned these lessons," she said.
Perhaps it is the manner -- the time and the place in which these lessons were learned -- that helps us understand how Aisha Abdel-Hadi, who eagerly describes herself as a "daughter of Nasser and the revolution", became a senior member of a federation that currently defends, and is part and parcel of, the total reversal of that era.
When she talks of the 1960s Aisha's tone verges on the nostalgic: "The situation of the working class was so much better than now. The Socialist Laws had been issued which made labour a part of management and protected wages and jobs. So most of our activity was political."
At the time, Aisha was drawn into the Arab Socialist Union (ASU) and the Vanguard Organisation.
"At that time Ali Sayed Ali was head of the Workers' Committee within the ASU and he set up camps for union activists to train them politically. Three hundred cadres graduated from these camps and I was the only woman amongst them. Our job was to travel the country and teach workers the Mithaq (Charter)," explained Aisha.
"These were great times: history was being made and everyone could have a role to play, a role that was important, that made a difference. I was young and I was a woman but I only found people willing to take my hand and teach me. Everything around me pushed me to do more. The music of the time and the goals to be attained -- there was a national struggle going on and it provided very fertile ground for anyone who wanted to do anything."
So Aisha travelled from Damietta to Port Said and Upper Egypt.
"I would go to the venue of a lecture and people would think I was Aisha Abdel-Hadi's daughter. They could not believe someone so young could be the person they were waiting for," she remembers.
"I felt a great challenge and responsibility on my shoulders. I was in a position where people would ask me questions and I had to have the right answers and so I read a lot and did everything possible to learn as much as I could."
The image of herself that she projected reflected, and tellingly so, her sense of her vocation.
"I wore my hair short and on many occasions would wear overalls. I had no childhood and no time for the dreams of youth. I entered the adult world early on -- I mean I was 22 and most of my colleagues were over 40."
She also became a member of the elite Vanguard Organisation which, she says, brought her into contact with the most senior officials.
"I always thought this was just the first step. Not that I had any personal ambition," she is quick to point out, "but because we were a generation that lived with dreams of the High Dam and a national industry. That was until 1967."
But before one thing eventually leads to another one obvious point, at least, needs verification. If the public realm appears to have been perfectly accepting of this young woman's activities, what about her family?
"My father was in fact quite proud of me. People in our area would bring him the newspaper when an item with my name was printed in it and he would be very proud. Within my family they started to treat me like a man. When I came home they would prepare my meals for me and when I was asleep they would make sure no one would wake me. They started to view me in a male role," said Aisha.
Back to 1967. She remembers how the dreams started to shatter.
"I joined the demonstrations calling on Nasser to stay on as leader. But our worries weighed so heavy after the defeat."
Along with the defeat came another opportunity for Aisha to assume new responsibilities. After Nasser issued the 30 March Declaration promising political reform executive offices were set up in all governorates mandated to reorganise the nation's ranks and prepare the people for the challenges ahead.
"I was appointed in the same decree that appointed [Mohamed] Hassanein Heikal to the Giza executive office," she remembers with unmistakable pride.
Towards the end of this phase in her career, an Iraqi delegation arrived in Egypt for training. At the time Egypt's relations with Iraq were strained and the delegation members taunted Aisha, telling her that despite Egypt's claims to support Arab unity she would not be able to obtain permission to visit them in their country.
"I took their words seriously and told them I would be able to come. So they sent me an invitation and I took it straight up to Shaarawi Gomaa [then interior minister and head of the Vanguard Organisation] to get approval for my travel. It was a matter of legitimacy -- mine and the country's."
And so she was allowed to travel but while in Iraq "news that Nasser had accepted the Rogers Plan [for a cease-fire along the front with Israeli-occupied Sinai] got out and there was a huge anti-Egypt campaign in the press. I understood why Egypt had taken the decision and took it upon myself to explain to people why this was happening. A personal representative of Nasser happened to be at one such gathering and was very impressed. He asked me what I would like when I went home and I said I would like to meet Nasser."
When she got back, however, she was met by State Security instead.
"I remember the day clearly. It was 1 August, 1970 and as soon as I returned I was called in by state security and interrogated for many hours. I went to Gomaa's office after my release and complained. He called some [police] general and complained. I never knew how the whole thing was orchestrated but it left a very bitter taste."
The bitterness was compounded a month later when Nasser died.
"I was at [poet Abdel-Rahman] El-Abnoudi's house, I am a close friend of his then-wife Attiyat, and he was working on a song for Moharam Fouad. I received a call from the syndicate asking me why the TV and radio were broadcasting so much Qur'an and I told them it was probably because the day was a religious holiday. Anyway, the news broke on the street soon afterwards and we found out the truth. He had died and I felt like the whole world had caved in. I ran onto the street where I stayed for three days until the funeral."
"I felt like I could not go on, like everything had been lost. And so I waited until December... and then took the decision to leave my work."
"It was a bad time for me, a time of weakness. This is when I took the decision to get married. Previously I had made the decision not to. My work was everything and needed all my attention. But when that was lost I said to myself, well at least I should have marriage."
It did not, however, take long before Aisha was back on track.
"It only took a few months. As soon as my husband started to put down regulations regarding what I could and could not do I put my foot down and said no."
At which point any discussion of her marriage ends. Yet photos of her two sons getting married, and of her grandchildren, occupy a prominent position in her office, suggesting that the decision taken at a moment of "weakness" had its compensations. Behind her desk, under an official photo of the president, is a child's calendar with funny little animals on it. But when our photographer asked to take it down Aisha protested: "I am a grandmother," she insisted.
Shortly after her return to public life Aisha was once again promoted.
"I was elevated in the hierarchy once again in the elections of 1971 but the years between 1971 and 1973 were difficult. There was a state of turmoil within the Federation and the unions with too many opposing factions fighting for control. Then in 1973 there was a restructuring of the unions and the General Federation for Chemical Industries came to include the industries of petrol and pharmaceuticals. I remember these times as marking the beginning of a new era, with the introduction of the infitah."
Sadat's peace policies also alienated the Federation from the unions of other Arab states and also created pressures from within.
"I remember the general assembly that was organised to discuss issues related to wages and prices and the head of the federation at the time, Saad Ahmed, said that being a representative of the government did not mean that one had to agree to all its policies. I took this opportunity and jumped up waving some papers I had in my hand and said 'I have here the signatures of the assembly on a petition against normalisation with Israel and in particular the Histadrut.' The papers in my hands were empty but I sensed the feeling of those present and seized the opportunity that had been opened to take this sort of action. As soon as I spoke there was a storm of applause and the decision was taken: no to normalisation. I am very proud of that moment."
She sits back in her chair and pulls her linen jacket tightly around her.
"It was because a decision like that had been taken that the head of the Iron and Steel Company's union was able to bar the Israeli president at the time from visiting the factory despite pressures from the upper echelons of government."
But what about workers rights?
"The rules of the game have changed, particularly since the early 1990s when the government adopted its policies of structural adjustment. From the outset we were involved in protracted negotiations with the government regarding the laws that would govern the process, including Investment Law No. 203. We were able to protect labour because of our intervention, which is one reason why we keep on calling for the passing of the draft Unified Labour Law, so that we can have a legal structure to protect workers' rights," Aisha explains.
It is obvious, now that the subject is opened, that there can be no stopping her.
"In addition to laws, however, we need managers that have developed a progressive attitude towards the workforce, managers who understand the value of labour. What we have in Egypt today is management that tries to solve all of its problems by coming down hard on the workforce, taking advantage of the fact that unemployment pushes people into accepting whatever terms are dictated."
But what about her role and the role of the organisation she is a part of leading in all of this?
"I know we need to develop as well. There are many sections of the working class that now exist beyond our structures. These must be incorporated into our ranks to make us more effective and capable of defending and negotiating on behalf of labour."
Nor is it just the private sector that has proved problematic: "So is the public sector. For example, in the Shura Council I uncovered the corruption of a public sector manager. He was removed only to be replaced by one even more corrupt."
She is on a roll, describing the various ways by which employers take advantage of their workers. And how does she feel about all of this?
"Very sad. An attitude that is anti-labour has permeated work places. It is very painful."
So Aisha has decided to use the Shura Council to highlight worker-related issues while within the Federation she agrees that it is necessary to re-vamp attitudes and ideas.
"We need to re-formulate our independence as a union structure. We also need to create new cadres and we need to make it clear that union activism is not about trips or personal gain but about constant struggle and shop-floor activity. These are ideas that have become muddled along the way and need to be brought back into focus."
And all the talk about GFTU, and by extension herself, being mere pawns of the government?
Aisha scoffs: "We have so little to work with. So few resources and labour is on the defensive. We need to talk to the government and we cannot negotiate with them if we are not on speaking terms."
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