Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

‘The right to live’

Textile workers vow to continue industrial action until they receive the 10 per cent pay increase decreed by President Al-Sisi in July, Faiza Rady reports

Workers' demonestrations
Al-Ahram Weekly

“Twenty thousand textile workers at the Ghazl Al-Mahalla plants have been on strike since 21 October,” Abdel-Ghany Al-Naggar, a veteran worker at the mill, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“All we are demanding is that the company implements President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s July decree increasing the salaries of public sector workers by 10 per cent.”

On 19 October workers refused to accept their salaries until the company includes the raise in their paycheques. Responding to the workers’ demands, Ibrahim Badir, the company’s CEO, claimed the Ministry of Finance had refused to disburse the 10 per cent increase to Gazl Al-Mahalla on the grounds that the workers, who are already entitled to a seven per cent annual raise, were not eligible for it.

“This was just an excuse,” says Al-Naggar. “Gazl Al-Mahalla, like a host of other public sector companies, is a holding company, just like the Holding Company for Foodstuffs and the Holding Company for Metallurgic Industries where workers receive the same yearly raise, based on Labour Law 12 of 2003, and still the Ministry of Finance paid them the 10 per cent decreed by the president.”

“The workers will continue to strike until their demands are met,” Sayed Habib, Al-Mahalla’s coordinator at the Centre for Workers and Trade Union Services (CWTUS), told the Weekly. A veteran labour activist in Al-Mahalla, Habib has struggled all his life to establish more equitable relations between labour and management.

“Though they are on strike workers go to the plant during their scheduled shifts and sit next to their assigned looms until the next shift takes over,” says Habib. “This is to protect the plant from potential vandalism by non-workers and to prevent company officials from trying to break the strike.”

Workers have already intervened to prevent a group of managers and engineers from trying to activate the machines during the work stoppage.

“On the other hand, there have been no attempts by security forces to break the strike,” says Habib. “Since the pay raise was decreed by the president, for once in our long history of industrial action the strike was approved by the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).”

Contravening the 1998 International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) commitment to guarantee freedom of association and bargaining for workers, which Egypt has ratified, the Labour Law stipulates workers can take strike action only if it is supported by a two-thirds majority vote of the executive committee of a national general union affiliated to ETUF.

Though not formally a state institution the ETUF, established by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1957 and historically aligned with the ruling party, has mostly functioned to repress the workers’ movement. Until the 25 January Revolution of 2011, workers were obliged to join the federation’s local unions and pay union dues — they had no choice in the matter.

It was on 30 January 2011 that activists in Tahrir Square, led by the CTUWS and the tax collectors who formed Egypt’s first independent trade union in 2009, announced the establishment of the first independent labour federations since 1952 — the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress (EDLC) and Permanent Congress of Alexandria Workers (PCAW).

“Though we have a real union in Al-Mahalla,” explains Habib, “it has been weakened as a result of repeated threats and the punishment of workers by company officials. After the January 2014 strike over nonpayment of incentives, management accused 15 activists of inciting the strike and impeding production, a criminal charge if the work stoppage is not sanctioned by ETUF. While some of the activists were subjected to disciplinary actions, three were fired.”

“Though the ten per cent is largely symbolic, not being adjusted to the rate of inflation, which is much higher, it is our due. We gained it following years of protracted struggle,” says Abdel-Ghany.

“Technically we have been entitled to a yearly ten per cent cost of living adjustment since 1987, which Al-Sisi simply reinstated. The core problem of all of Egypt’s workers is the minimum wage. It is outdated and out of step with reality.”

The decision of the National Committee for Wages to set the minimum wage at LE1,200 was based on demands by Gazl Al-Mahalla workers that date back to their historic strike on 6 April 2008. At the time, the UN-defined poverty level was set at a $2 per person per day.

Egyptian heads of households — who support on average 3.7 people — need to make LE1,200 just to hover above the poverty line. That was seven years ago. Since then, inflationary pressures have pushed the global definition of poverty upwards.

According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), 26.3 per cent of Egyptians lived below the national poverty line in 2012-2013. Between January 2010 and September 2013 prices of food staples such as vegetables and bread soared by 21.3 per cent.

The price of cereals, reports the Egyptian Food Observatory, has increased by 16.3 per cent. Incidents of food insecurity rose from 14 per cent in 2009 to 17.2 per cent in 2011, affecting 13.7 million people, says the World Food Programme.

Food insecurity, the main cause of malnutrition, caused infantile stunting to increase from 23 per cent in 2005 to 29 per cent in 2009 according to the Egyptian Ministry of Health and Population. Food insecurity and malnutrition is likely to increase because of the decreasing consumption of vegetables, fruits and dairy products.

“The figures you mention are outdated because organisations like CAPMAS report only at the year’s end,” notes Abdel-Ghany. “In 2015 the situation has deteriorated further. The devaluation of the pound against the dollar and the government’s gradual lifting of subsidies have compounded inflation.”

He continued, “After having worked for 41 years, my take-home pay, including incentives, amounts to about LE2,000, which is at the high-end of the workers’ salary scale. Even so my salary does not cover the living expenses of my family of five.

“I have two sons, both unemployed university graduates. When they applied to work at Gazl Al-Mahalla they were offered jobs as labourers. I told them to decline. What all this amounts to is that I still don’t make a living wage.

“I often reflect on the 25 January revolutionary slogan: ‘Lift your head high. You are an Egyptian.’ Now I ask myself: Are we Egyptians, or have we been parachuted here from elsewhere? Still, we will continue the struggle to recover our dignity. It is a struggle for social justice and freedom. We are fighting for the right to live.”

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