Egypt's Mahalla workers strike, bring demands to the military

Marwa Hussein, Wednesday 16 Feb 2011

More than 20,000 workers in Mahalla have relaunched a strike demanding higher wages and better management

Ghazel Elmahala

About 20,000 workers in Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra, more than 100 kilometres north of Cairo, relaunched a strike after a three-day break in the largest spinning and weaving factory in Egypt.

The strike for higher wages and better conditions comes despite the country's new military rulers' warning that more strikes would be "disastrous".

"We want to set a minimum wage of LE1200 per month for workers," said Kamal El-Fayoumi, one of the workers who called for the strike in the government-owned factory.

"We also call for the departure of the temporarily appointed manager of the company, who replaced a few years ago the ex-CEO." The latter was toppled during a strike in 2007.

"The factory still suffers from bad performance despite the huge investments the government poured in to modernise the company", El-Fayoumi complains, calling also for the dismissal of the manager's advisors, who failed to improve the company's results.

A military representative is currently negotiating with the strikers, trying to convince them to leave the company's headquarters on a promise that he will make sure their demands will be met. The workers, however, decline to leave.

"We closed the gates, so people would stay. We will remain on strike until our demands are met," El-Fayoumi insists.

Mahalla, the place of rebellions

Al-Mahalla witnessed a successful strike in September 2007, with workers demanding a greater share of the company’s annual profits and removal of company management. The strike ended in victory, with the government succumbing to the workers’ demands after six days.

The head of the local union resigned after he was hospitalised by the strikers while trying to persuade them to disband the strike. The CEO was removed a month later. 

A few months after that, in February 2008, leftist organisers in Ghazl El-Mahalla mobilised the biggest anti-Mubarak labour protest since he ascended to power in 1981. Some 10,000 factory workers took to the streets, joined by a similar number of local citizens, demanding a raise in the national minimum wage and chanting against Mubarak and his son Gamal, whom he’d been grooming for succession.

As workers in Ghazl El-Mahalla announced their intention to go on their third strike in less than two years, opposition groups and bloggers launched a call for a general strike, asking the public to stay home. On the 6 April 2008, thousands of police troops occupied the town of Mahalla, and security took control of the factory, preempting the strike.

Spontaneous demonstrations broke out in the town, however, including thousands of the urban poor, the young employed, and workers chanting against the president, corruption, and price increases. The demonstrators were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition, which left at least two young men, ages 15 and 20, dead. 

Hundreds were arrested and dozens were critically injured in the ensuing crackdown.

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