Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 March 2005
Issue No. 734
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'Nobody's listening'

The government-controlled GFTU tells Esco workers to go back to work or else, reports Faiza Rady

Click to view caption
Workers at Esco Qalyoub staging a sit-in at the GFTU

Workers from Esco's Qalyoub textile mill staged a sit in at the headquarters of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) on Saturday and Sunday. The workers are protesting the government's sale of the Qalyoub mill to industrialist Hashem El-Daghri. They are demanding either to remain in the public sector in order to salvage job security and social security benefits or else an adequate early retirement package.

"We've been on strike since 13 February and nobody is listening to our grievances," says Mohamed Hamed Abdel-Hamid, a senior Esco worker.

"Last month Esco cut three days from our wages to punish us for striking, and this month they're threatening not to pay us at all because the GFTU did not authorise the strike. This is the reason we came here -- to try and get help from the union."

Under the controversial new unified labour law workers can strike only with the permission of the government-controlled GFTU, which must support industrial action with a two-thirds majority, a difficult, if not impossible, requirement. The law also requires workers to announce the duration of any action prior to its being taken.

"Workers go on strike to improve their material conditions," says Kamal Abbas of the Centre of Trade Union and Workers' Services (CTUWS), a Helwan-based NGO. "They are not staging a play. They are not rehearsing for some media circus. And they should not be forced to strike within the straight jacket of a preset timetable. This defeats the purpose of the strike because it limits the workers' bargaining power."

A delegation of 50 workers, representing the 400 Qalyoub strikers, came to Cairo on Saturday in a last-ditch attempt to secure GFTU backing for their strike and publicise their demands. Pedestrians passing the union building greeted the chanting strikers with the victory sign though the police were quick to push the workers off the street and back into the building.

Throughout the two days of the sit-in GFTU president El-Sayed Rashed was incommunicado. The irony of the situation was not lost on the strikers whose voices rang loud and clear across the clamour of the bustling street: "El-Rashed you're still at it, pretending to be a worker," they chanted, deriding the ever-elusive trade union president.

Rather than continue waiting for Godot the workers sent a five-men delegation to negotiate with the union beaurcarats. The delegation's meeting with GFTU General Secretary Said El-Gohari had two state security officers in attendence.

"I don't represent you and I'm not responsible for you," El-Gohari told the delegation. "Your strike is illegal. I can't help you because you didn't go through the available union channels."

Told by Al-Ahram Weekly that the Qalyoub mill's GFTU representative Mahmoud Hassan had contacted the GFTU prior to the strike, El-Gohari shrugged saying he had no information to that effect.

"You are taking on the government," El- Gohari told the workers. "I'm in no position to help you."

Workers at the six Esco mills have felt the full brunt of downsizing -- the first step towards privatisation, says Egyptian labour historian Joel Beinin. "The six Esco mills employed some 24,000 workers in 1980, they have been reduced to 3,500 by a combination of attrition, a hiring freeze since 1987 and five waves of early retirement packages, the last in 2000," wrote Beinin in the March edition of MERIP, a US-based journal reporting on the Middle East.

"According to Ministry of Labour figures, 650,000 workers have been forced into early retirement since the government started privatising the public sector in 1994," says Adel Zakariya of the CTUWS. "But the real toll is probably much higher. At any rate, early retirement packages are practically worthless given inflation and the depreciation of the Egyptian pound."

The backdoor sale of the Qalyoub mill to El-Daghri ranks high on the list of the workers' grievances. Under the new unified labour law the workers own a ten per cent stake in the plant. They were not, however, informed of the sale and found out only when one of them came across a newspaper ad.

Haytham Gabr, a member of National Human Rights Council, agrees. "The backdoor sale was an attempt to keep the lid on a shady deal," says Gabr.

"The government practically gave the mill away to El-Deghri, who bought it for LE4 million. How can they justify selling public property, the Egyptian people's property, at such a price? Prior to renting and then selling the mill to El-Deghri, Esco had spent LE7 million on new equipment. Why upgrade the plant only to sell it for less than the upgrading costs, let alone at a free market price?" asks Gabr.

Back at GFTU headquarters the Esco workers' delegation returned from negotiations empty-handed. After two days of meetings the workers were told to set up a local committee that could present their grievances to the union. The GFTU, in turn, would take their demands to the ministers of labour and investment who, union officials say, will look into them.

The workers were not impressed. "We won't be conned by empty promises, we've had enough of them," said Mahmoud Gaber. "We will continue the strike.

After the workers had left GFTU chief, El- Sayed Rashed, suddenly appeared to tell the press that the Qalyoub workers' rights had been fully protected in the mill's sales contract. The workers demands to remain in the public sector or, alternatively, to settle for early retirement were unacceptable, he said. And, he continued, they would face punitive action should the strike continue.

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