The walk from the metro station in the tranquil town of Torah, Helwan, a suburb of Cairo, at first makes little sense. The town after all is largely industrial. However, a break in the concrete landscape reveals plenty of open space, trees and the majestic Nile. The Egyptian Starch and Glucose Manufacturing Company’s Torah factory, built in 1954, rests here, overlooking the Corniche El-Nile.
The factory, though, is eerily quiet with few signs of life. The sounds of production are not to be heard. Walking up to the locked gate – blanketed by a banner which reads “workers on strike” – you are met by a group of middle-aged men looking out curiously and inquisitively from the security office. After being welcomed in with little or no antagonism, a man glaring at the camera equipment feigns concern and demands a security check but is interrupted by another who shouts, “This is our factory, if they want to take photos they can.”
The workers gather around, eager to give a tour of their once state of the art factory. Not two steps onto the main grounds and the sight of metal scrapings, rubble, broken glass and rusting barrels shatters any trace of tranquillity. The scene resembles a ransacked scrap yard, yet its likeness to a war zone with remnants of demolished buildings scattered every which way is the more evocative truth.
For more than a week, workers of the Torah factory have been engaged in a sit-in demonstration, locking the gates and effectively occupying the once lucrative factory. Hundreds of workers, most of them veterans, who had spent a lifetime with the company, are demanding they be given their jobs back or appropriately compensated whether with a severance package or their retirement allowance.
It has been almost a year since the factory shut-down after management called for renovations. Since then, workers have seen the factory dismantled bit by bit and labourers laid off while others are coerced to leave as plans to turn the factory grounds into a tourism development have devastated the livelihood of the company’s dedicated workforce.
The source of the workers’ distress began in 2004 when the 50 year-old factory, then public, was privatised and sold to the Americana Group, a Kuwaiti food and beverage manufacturer and international franchise operator. A Kharafi Group consortium led by Americana acquired 95 per cent of the company, with the rest of the shares going to private investors.
According to Saber Abdelkarim Hussein, vice president of the factory’s union committee, the management company, headed by Kuwaiti multibillionaire Nasser Al-Kharafi bought the starch and glucose manufacturer for LE128 million, though considering the company’s assets, funds and credit, Hussein points out that Al-Kharafi spent a mere LE40 million out of his pocket: “a silly figure”, remarks the union leader. Khaled Badr, general manager of the company since the takeover, claims on his website that the company had an annual turnover of LE400 million in 2005.
Holding an estimated 80 per cent market share in the production and export of starch and glucose, Egyptian Starch and Glucose Co is operated from two factories: one in Mostorod and the other in Torah. Saber Hussein asserts that the “Torah factory was the most productive factory; carrying the weight of the company’s production. The products were in high demand throughout the Middle East and Africa.”
In April 2010, the Kharafi Group consortium announced it intended to modernise and renovate the company. A month later on 15 May the Torah factory was shut down in preparation for the renewal. To the great shock of the workers, the management began tearing down the factory in November, breaking apart electrical equipment, belts, cables, steel beams and storage silos and selling them at a fraction of their worth.
“We are now calling for the operation of this factory. Of course before the revolution, we were not able to speak out and if we did Central Security would have rounded us up. In light of what has happened – after the Intifada – all we ask is that we begin operating our factory again; nothing more”, Hussein states.
The union leader continues, stressing that “as long as these workers come to work, they should get their salary...that he [Al-Kharafi] has prevented us from operating is not our issue.”
The factory workers are unanimous in pointing to government corruption. One worker states, “The factory licence given by the government which includes licenses for equipment, safety standards and everything are still valid even though Al-Kharafi is destroying the place. See for yourselves and take photos!
“We submitted our complaints to public prosecutors and have people speaking with them now. The general atmosphere before was if you spoke you’d go to State Security...they sent generals to terrorise us. Sometimes they would have us sign papers saying we had gotten our annual holiday, even though we hadn’t. Now the general atmosphere has changed [after the Intifada]; it’s not right that after 32 years, they throw me away and say you don’t have a salary or work here. Take care, they’d say. Is that right?”
The tour of the factory and its labs is quite surreal. Dogs prance around heaps of rubble, refuse, dismantled electrical cupboards, strewn cables and pools of standing sewage. Cobwebs hang dismally from the ceilings now visible in the absence of the many bridges and walkways demolished during the company’s proposed renewal.
A worker standing behind the crowd appears and presents the camera crew with pictures of his little boy who is suffering from a crippling illness. With a warm, melancholic smile on his face, he explains that he isn’t as old as the other worker’s around him, but he’s dedicated his adult life to the factory and at the age of 47 it would be impossible to find another job.
Other workers begin to lift up their shirts and push down their trousers, showing surgical scars on their abdomen and waist. Some have diabetes or cancer while others suffer from work related accidents. They stress that they have no medical insurance and can’t live off the LE300-500 pound severance check.
They declare that lab technicians, scientists and others were forced to do manual labour or lose their jobs. “People with degrees, engineers and accountants forced to lift and carry things like pack mules!” a worker shouted with incredulity.
“He wants to get rid of us at any cost, so he can do with the land as he pleases”, exclaims a portly man with thick spectacles.
After a week of protests and sit-ins, the workers are clearly exhausted. For more than a year their lives have been turned upside down, but in the wake of the Egyptian Intifada and as revolutionary fervour sweeps through the country’s labour force, this community of factory workers has decided to make their voices heard. In the spirit of Tahrir, the workers have vowed not to leave until their demands are met; some promise to bring their families.
These workers have acutely suffered from the regime’s corruption. A simple tour of their factory shows the physical and material destruction caused by the regime’s conflation of business and politics.