It was in 2006 when Kamal El-Fayoumi, who had spent three decades of his life working for the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla, realised that he and his fellow workers should unite to combat corruption policies that were depriving them of a dignified living.
He and the workers had witnessed en-masse vote rigging during the 2006 textile union elections, to serve its board members, according to El-Fayoumi.
They went on strike to protest the vote rigging, to demand pay after a two-month delay, and eventually collected signatures to withdraw confidence from the union board.
Two years later, in February 2008, El-Fayoumi and thousands of his colleagues marched to El-Shoon square in Mahalla demanding a minimum wage, which eventually became a core demand in the Egyptian labour movement.
The protest was soon followed by the 6 April 2008 strike, during which protesters tore down a picture of then president Hosni Mubarak for the first time in his 28-year rule, in events that have since been widely regarded as a precursor to the 2011 revolution that toppled the autocrat. During this 6 April protest, El-Fayoumi was arrested and accused of inciting the strikes.
El-Fayoumi and his colleagues thus joined the ranks of other workers nationwide demanding that the public sector be saved from the privatisation policies that had emerged under late president Anwar El-Sadat and become fiercer under his successor Mubarak.
“If the government wants a real renaissance, it has to pump at least small investments into the public sector,” El-Fayoumi tells Ahram Online. “If there is a real will to revive the public sector, we will have a true industrial renaissance especially when it comes to the textile companies.”
The 50-year-old labourer remembered the day when his company was respected and its products exported around the world.
The Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla, the largest textile company in Egypt’s history, was established in 1926 by pioneering economist and founder of the first Egyptian bank Talaat Harb. It was nationalised in the aftermath of the 1952 revolution.
War on the public sector
“The holding company says that, if they want to develop the textile sector, they need LE 5 million, which they want to acquire through selling the company's land and equipment, and it will probably be sold at a price below its worth.”
“We are against the selling policy,” he says. “We want a partnership with any respectable country in the textile sector such as China, India or Turkey.”
“You can’t say you are developing when you are selling and getting rid of workers,” says El-Fayoumi, who adds that his company, which once employed up to 40,000 workers, now only has 18,000 workers.
Systematic laying off of workers began around 2007, he explains, since then the company has stopped replacing those who die, are fired or leave on pension.
El-Fayoumi worked at the electricity generating unit.
“Before we had been 24, and then we were just eight,” he says. “[This although] the workload had increased, the [machines were] 70 years old and needed someone to always be on alert.”
“How can the CEO of a holding company making losses earn a salary of LE 70,000, while workers are getting sacked when they ask that the corrupt be held accountable?” he asks.
Workers are usually paid an average of LE 1,000 a month, says El-Fayoumi, and until recently he was making LE 3,000, even after 31 years of working for the company.
El-Fayoumi accuses the Mahalla company of deliberately pushing the workers’ limits by refusing to invest, ignoring maintenance and refusing to provide the simplest spare parts needed to produce quality material. Workers already have to work harder with the company refusing to replace old workers, he says.
“Their goal is to wear the workers out and frighten them so that, when the number of workers decreases, they can sell the company’s land for billions under the table,” he says.
“But this [privatising] will never happen as long as the Mahalla workers are there,” he warns. “They all love their company.”
“Ninety percent of their fathers used to work for the company. My father worked there for 48 years. Our loyalty and love for the company exceeds our love for our own homes.”
‘Nothing has changed’
According to El-Fayoumi, nothing has changed since the 2008 uprising or even the 2011 revolution, except for the fear of being accused of being sympathetic to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood if they speak up.
“If we were sympathetic [to the Brotherhood], then how did we march against the Brotherhood on 30 June?” he asks. “We all went on marches after our working hours to the El-Shoon Square, where the 2008 uprising took place, and demanded the toppling of the Brotherhood.”
Only two weeks ago, El-Fayoumi and two other workers were accused of inciting a strike and causing the company to lose LE 8 million.
They were told that their services were no longer needed and barred from going to their jobs.
It all started on 13 January, when workers held a strike, frustrated by a delay in their pay.
But, El-Fayoumi says he was in Cairo at the time, briefing the workers’ rights group Hemaya about the deteriorating situation in Mahalla and what he described as "an aggressive campaign against the public sector."
“Eleven days after the strike, I was summoned for investigation where they accused me of inciting the strike and causing the company to lose LE 8 million. I told them, ‘How could I have done it if I wasn’t here?’ Three months after the investigation, I was on vacation and they called me to tell me that my employment had been terminated.”
“It wasn't anything I hadn’t expected," he says. "I had expected even more than this.”
“This is the same Mubarak gang, now feeling more empowered as workers are scared,” he says, adding that he strongly believes that their demands will never be met until all the figures of the Mubarak-era National Democratic Party and affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood are eliminated from the political scene.
A new labour law
El-Fayoumi, a member of the Towards a Just Labour Law group, is critical of a draft law regulating the relationship between employers, employees and trade unions.
According to El- Fayoumi, the law is worse than its predecessor, as it prioritises the rights of company owners and new investors, whom he describes as "imperialists", over those of workers.
“The [new draft] law stipulates that workers are only granted a five-year contract and that, after this period, the employer has the full right to terminate it," he says. "If the worker gets sick after a while, the employer is allowed to let him go.”
“Before, if a worker got sick after 10 years -- and usually it’s a work injury, he had to be relocated [to another department] or given light duties,” he says.
The old law authorised the court to oblige the company to re-hire a fired worker, he says, and, if the company refused, it was obliged to pay the worker compensation.
However, the new law gives authority to the governor, the union board and the Ministry of Manpower, instead of a court of law, all of whom El-Fayoumi doubts would take the side of the worker.
Workers had wished that the new draft law would dictate that, if a company refuses to re-hire someone, they will be threatened with a hefty fine or time in jail in order to force them to bring back the worker.
"I am expecting an explosion among workers soon,” concludes the veteran workers’ rights activist. “They are either being sacked or their demands are being ignored.”
“They will have to speak up, if it is not today then tomorrow. But I see it happening soon.”