Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Mahalla: A victory, of sorts

The government may have promised to meet the demands of striking workers at the Ghazl Al-Mahalla Company but social justice remains elusive, reports Faiza Rady

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the industrial north Delta town of Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra, textile workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company (Ghazl Al-Mahalla) went back to work on 1 November, ending an 11-day strike. In the neighbouring town of Kafr Al-Dawwar thousands of striking workers at the Kafr Al-Dawwar Textile Company also resumed work. Ghazl Al-Mahalla claims the strike cost LE30 million in lost revenue.

Ghazl Al-Mahalla is the largest public textile enterprise in Egypt and an emblem of Egyptian nationalism. The plant was established in 1922 by Bank Misr as a showcase of Egypt’s industrialisation drive. It is also a showcase for labour militancy. The textile workers’ October strike is the most recent episode in a long-standing culture of protest.

“The reason we ended the strike is that the government promised to meet our demands,” Abdel-Ghani Al-Naggar, a worker at Ghazl Al-Mahalla and a veteran labour activist affiliated with the workers’ rights NGO the Centre for Workers’ and Trade Union Services (CWTUS), told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“We were fighting for our rights, for what is due to us. In the end, following a flurry of senior state officials visiting Al-Mahalla, the President of the General Textile Union — an affiliate of the government-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) — said the government had ordered the two companies to pay employees the 10 per cent increase due to all those employed by the Public Works Sector. We also asked for the reinstatement of seven of our co-workers who were suspended for supposedly inciting the work stoppage.”

On 21 October 20,000 workers at Ghazl Al-Mahalla began industrial action after the company refused to pay the 10 per cent pay increase decreed by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in July. A spat of claims and counter-claims from the ministries of finance, investment and the labour force began, with the former claiming Al-Mahalla workers were not eligible for the raise because they already receive an annual seven per cent cost of living increase.

“Their argument was totally spurious,” says Al-Naggar. “Far from representing a form of state charity or bonus the 10 per cent is a cost-of-living adjustment package that we have been entitled to since 1987. It is a right that we gained as a result of protracted struggles. Besides, the increase is not adjusted to the real annual inflation rate which is much higher.”

“It was because of the workers’ resolve to continue their action that the government agreed to fulfill their demands,” says Al-Sayed Habib, Al-Mahalla’s CWTUS coordinator and a prominent labour rights activist. “What’s more, each strike day costs the company millions of pounds in lost revenue. Ending the strike became a priority requiring the prime minister’s personal intervention.”

After Kafr Al-Dawwar’s textile workers joined the work stoppage the government faced the prospect of labour militancy spreading throughout the sector.

Workers played an important part overthrowing the regime of Hosni Mubarak, though they did not make the headlines, says labour historian Joel Beinin. “Strikes, which escalated after 1998, played a major role in delegitimising the regime.”

On 29 October Prime Minister Sherif Ismail ordered all holding companies in the Public Work Sector to implement the presidential decree. Before announcing his decision Ismail had met with a delegation of ETUF trade union delegates who advised him to disburse the increase to contain the strike and prevent it from spreading to other sectors. The trade unionists specifically warned the PM of the iron and steel industry where workers are renowned for their militancy.

“Though our strike was successful I want to stress that the 10 per cent doesn’t solve our problems,” says Al-Naggar. “The average base salary of a Ghazl Al-Mahalla worker is between LE600 and LE800, reaching LE1,200 pounds after the addition of incentives and bonuses. A monthly pay increase ranging anywhere between 60 and 120 pounds doesn’t put much more food on our tables. We live from hand to mouth and will continue to do so. ”

Egyptian textile workers figure at the bottom of the regional pay scale. According to the American Chamber of Commerce they earn 92 per cent less than workers doing similar jobs in Israel, 81 per cent less than in Turkey and 65 per cent less than in Tunisia.

“I keep asking myself, as workers do we have any rights, are we doomed to live in poverty? Whatever happened to the 25 January demands for bread, freedom and social justice? No matter, we are fighters and to regain our rights we will continue to struggle,” said Al-Naggar.

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