Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 June - 6 July 2005
Issue No. 749
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Political spin-off effects

Al-Amrya Weaving and Textile Company workers have ended their strike but it may be too early to consign it to history, writes Faiza Rady

"Why did you bother coming all the way to Alexandria? The strike ended and the workers agreed to settle last week. It's all history now," said Ibrahim Yassin, legal counsel to Misr Al-Amrya Weaving and Textile Company.

The case, though, is not quite as clear-cut as Yassin makes it sound. Workers at Al-Amrya first staged a sit-in from 11 to 13 June, demanding higher wages. There was no stoppage, however, since throughout the sit-in all shifts continued to work as usual.

After management pledged to address their demands the workers agreed to vacate the plant. But arriving for work the following morning they found themselves locked out of the plant and told to take four days leave. They returned on 18 June, this time to find a memo saying that management had looked into their demands for better equipment and was planning to purchase Chinese-manufactured looms to "improve productivity".

"They were attempting to turn the main issue, which is about pay, into one of productivity and equipment. It was not what we had agreed to five days earlier," says textile worker and local union representative Rachad Sha'ban, "so we went back on strike but this time round we halted production."

The stoppage produced immediate results. The following day El-Sayed Rached, head of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), arrived with Maher Shaltout, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, to negotiate a settlement with Misr Al-Amrya CEO Mohamed Elhamy. The company agreed to three pay raises in lieu of the package of five requested by the workers.

The first two payments include this year's government-mandated 20 per cent cost-of- living increase, which will be added to the workers' July base salary. The third instalment will be paid in January.

Despite the speed with which a settlement was reached following industrial action many Al-Amrya workers remain suspicious of management intentions and dissatisfied with the deal.

"Whatever Yassin told you, the strike is not yet history," says technician Ahmed Abdallah. "We went on strike for higher wages and while it is true that the company made some concessions we have yet to receive the agreed settlement in full. If they go back on their word we will definitely resume the strike."

The mill's 7000 workers, though private sector employees, have demanded pay rises on par with their public sector counterparts who receive a basic salary that is then supplemented by annual bonuses. Private sector workers receive only the flat rate bonus with no annual increments to their basic pay with the result that they end up at the bottom of the wage scale.

"The problem hinges on the difference between private and public sector workers," says Yassin. "As private sector workers they are not legally entitled to automatic increments in base salary. They cannot pick and choose and decide to change status because they want more pay."

The workers' status as private sector employees, though, is at best ambiguous. Misr Al-Amrya Weaving and Textile Company is an affiliate of Bank Misr, a public sector enterprise. The workers are categorised as private sector employees only because Misr Al-Amrya is categorised as a private investment company. Yet Bank Misr also set up Egypt's largest textile mill -- the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra -- which is a public sector company. The state-owned bank appears to be using different definitions to pay workers doing the same jobs different wages.

"This is all passé," says Kamal Abbas of the Helwan-based Centre for Workers and Trade Union Services (CTWUS). "The distinction between public and private sector workers will in any case become irrelevant, sooner or later, given that the entire public sector is on the block. What is important in this case is that the Unified Labour Law (12) of 2003 doesn't differentiate between private and public sector workers. Misr Al-Amrya cannot legally argue on the basis of state workers' rights to base salary increments versus private sector workers' non-rights. Which is why, in the end, the company did eventually comply."

Yassin dismisses such legal arguments in favour of a simpler explanation. "The workers got what they wanted because of the political situation. The country is on the verge of explosion and the government doesn't need strikes at this time. Four years ago the workers wouldn't have received a thing."

He concludes with an apparent non-sequitur: "Besides, management supports the workers. They are well paid, the average monthly take- home pay is in the range of LE800 to LE900. And they will get more after next month's raise comes into effect."

"What is he talking about? After 18 years on the job I make only LE500. We cannot live on our salaries," says technician Ahmed Abdallah. "I work the morning shift from 8am am to 2pm after which I drive a bus till midnight. Most of us have two jobs just to make ends meet."

According to a recent American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) study Egyptian textile workers are among the world's worst paid. They receive 92 per cent less than their Israeli counterparts, 81 per cent less than in Turkey and 65 per cent less than in Tunisia.

And while long-standing employees like Abdallah do enjoy a measure of job security newcomers fare much worse, being hired on a three- to six-months contractual basis. But if it's bad for textile workers the outlook can be worse for professionals. Engineers, for instance, are hired on the condition they reimburse the salary they have been paid should they leave the company before their contract is over.

"As soon as they start working the engineers put their salaries aside so that they will be free to leave should they find another job," explains Mohamed Salem, a young textile worker hired on a short-term contractual basis. "For the engineers it's really bondage labour, though as professionals it is easier for them to find better jobs."

So what is the GFTU's position over such practices?

"They don't interfere and they won't take up grievances," says Ahmed Salem of the labour section of the leftist Tagammu Party. "GFTU boss El-Sayed Rached only intervened this time because of the political situation. The workers know the union is just a showcase."

Additional reporting by Sara Abou Bakr

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