Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 May 2005
Issue No. 743
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'A partial victory'

It took a hunger strike on the part of Esco workers for officials to negotiate with them, reports Faiza Rady

"Looking back on the four-months-long strike I feel I have just opened my eyes and woken from a nightmare," says Suleiman Raafat, one of 400 striking textile workers at Esco's plant in Qalyoub, a small town some 15 kms north of Cairo bordering the industrial centre of Shubra Al-Khayma. It is a nightmare that includes a seven-week siege of the plant by state security forces, followed by a hunger strike on the part of the workers.

The three heavy-duty personnel carriers arrived outside the factory gate on 21 March, along with scores of state security officers who blocked the entrance to prevent anyone from talking to the workers.

Up until last week the authorities seemed intent on ignoring the strike. Esco management, government officials and the government-controlled General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) all dismissed the strikers' demands as unacceptable.

It was only on 9 May, when the strikers announced an open- ended hunger strike, that officials began to negotiate with them. Hunger strikes against privatisation are clearly bad for business. Over the last six months, 18 public sector companies were auctioned off at a value of over LE1billion, compared to only 15 companies in 2002 and 2003. And the government is targeting the struggling textile industry, in particular, which has been unable to compete with east and southeast Asian production.

Last Thursday a delegation of Esco workers met with Abdel- Rahman Shedid, secretary of the ruling National Democratic Party in Banha. He offered the strikers seasonal contracts "guaranteeing them all the benefits given to workers under the new unified labour law [12/2003]", LE10,000 per worker in lieu of an early retirement package and wage arrears for the last three months.

Though the workers remained on strike at the time of going to press a settlement may at last be in the making. While no contracts have yet been signed or payments made a majority of Esco workers have agreed in principle to the government's offer.

The workers began their strike on 13 February in protest against the sale of the factory to industrialist Hashem El- Deghri. They staged a sit-in in the plant, saying El-Deghri had threatened to fire workers and stopped paying bonuses as soon as he took over. The workers requested that they remain in the public sector where they have always worked and where they have accrued social security and pension benefits. If this demand could not be met they agreed to settle for an early retirement compensation package.

For three months the government and union rejected both demands. "The workers' demand that they use the early retirement scheme and be reappointed on a contractual basis is unacceptable and not supported by the union," Investment Minister Mahmoud Mohieddin said in March.

GFTU President El-Sayed Rashed told the workers, via a press release issued following their two-day sit-in at GFTU headquarters on 12 and 13 March, "to go back to work" or else "face punitive action". And, GFTU Secretary-General of the Textile Workers' Union Said El-Gawhary told the Weekly he was in no position to help because the workers "were taking on the government by challenging economic policies".

The holding company's CEO Mohsin El-Gilani, predictably, towed the same line. "El-Gilani repeatedly told us that we were deluding ourselves if we thought we would receive a single penny," said Esco worker Mohamed Gaber.

Yet the strikers remained undaunted. In February they managed to make ends meet though by March their situation was becoming increasingly desperate. Salaries were withheld because, under the new labour law, the strike is illegal. (Workers can legally strike only if they secure a two-third majority vote for action from the GFTU -- a difficult, if not impossible, requirement.)

"Somehow we managed to survive three months without pay, borrowing money and living on handouts from the community and from worker solidarity networks," said Suleiman. "But we all have children. There are 400 of us at the plant, with our families I estimate we are talking about at least 1600 people. More often than not we went hungry and our families went hungry. That's what hurt the most."

During their meeting with Shedid the Esco delegation asked for a settlement of LE30,000 per worker. Shedid rejected the figure and offered LE10,000. The delegation rejected the offer but agreed to let Shedid's assistant submit the proposal directly to strikers at the plant.

"The majority then accepted the proposal," says Gaber. "They are tired and hungry. You don't know what it's like not having the money to buy food for your family and to be responsible for that situation."

Officials now acknowledge the failure of their early retirement schemes, saying they are looking into alternative, more sustainable options. In the meantime Esco workers will be stuck with a bad deal. Although the proposed work contracts may look good on the surface they provide no job security and allow for hiring and firing at will. Clause 69 of the law specifies that workers can be fired if they fail to perform "essential duties", a definition sufficiently elastic to justify arbitrary sacking, says Kamal Abbas of the Centre for Trade Union Services (CTUWS), a Helwan-based NGO.

"What can I do with LE10,000 if I have no job and no pension," asks Gaber, "it will not even be enough to marry off my daughter. I am 48 years old now, who will give me another job? And if I manage to get a job, who will pay my pension?"

The proposed work contracts will be seasonal and contingent on demand and as such will seriously compromise annual incomes. "It's too early to tell because the deal hasn't yet been clinched," says Adel Zakareyia of the CTUWS, "but it is clear that the government has at least backed down from its earlier stand. After the hunger strike, Al-Gilani's 'not one single penny' has turned into LE 10,000. This constitutes, at the very least, a partial victory."

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