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A rock and a hard place: Workers hungry for change in post-revolution Egypt

Two-month-old labour action at Ideal Standard International Egypt – like several other post-revolution labour disputes – remains unresolved

Marwa Hussein, Wednesday 1 May 2013
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(Photo: Mai Shaheen)
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Two months have passed since work was halted at Ideal Standard International's Egypt factory, which produces sanitary products. Some 500 workers – almost half of the company's total workforce – have been holding a continuous sit-in since March at the 10 Ramadan industrial city, located some 50 kilometres east of Cairo.

Ideal Standard's story is similar to many other industrial conflicts, which Egypt began to see en masse since the uprising in early 2011. After the 25 January Revolution, thousands of workers – most of whom did not have a history of labour actions – staged their first strike, while hundreds of new trade unions have since emerged.

At Ideal, the conflict between workers and management escalated after the company fired nine members of the company's trade union. Protesting workers, for their part, demand the move be reversed.

"They [the dismissed union members] were the ones who put us on the right path," protesting Ideal Standard workers shouted. "If they're fired, it will be a message to workers not to fight for their rights."

According to workers, it was the management that halted work at the factory.

"The trade union has listed four demands to be discussed," workers said. "These were confirmed by a collective negotiation report by the manpower ministry. The management reacted by suspending work and halting production."

The buses that bring workers to the factory did not show up on 4 March, but many of them used public transportation to reach the location.

"Trade union members were banned from entering the factory. Workers sympathised with us and organised a sit-in," said union member Ahmed Youssef. "No managers showed up so we decided to resume work, but later that day the gas company cut the [gas] supply based on a request by the management."

Company management, for its part, accuses the nine dismissed workers of sabotage – a charge the workers deny.

"A few days ago we wanted to block the road outside the factory, but it was the trade union that convinced us not to do so, stressing that our movement should be peaceful in nature," said one protesting worker at the sit-in. "Look around – is anything destroyed?" he asked.

Workers also accuse company management of threatening them with dogs and hiring thugs.

Accusations of using undue force and hiring thugs have featured in a number of other recent labour disputes.

One of the most flagrant took place at the Portland Titan cement company in Alexandria, when management used dogs to break up a workers' sit-in in February, which resulted in several injuries – four of them serious.

"We acted in accordance with the law, which allows us to ban offenders from work and refer them to a labour court; we have not fired them," said a source from the chairman's office.

The source from the management added that the attorney-general of Zagazig (located in the Nile Delta's Sharqiya governorate) had ordered protesting workers to leave the factory's premises and hand the building over to the management.

The same source also said production was halted for security reasons. "The factory's oven reaches 2000 degrees; if it isn't operated properly, it can explode and cause enormous damage."

Workers, for their part, were supported by a document issued by Manpower Minister Khaled El-Azhari, which blamed the company's management for cutting the gas supply and halting production. The document notes that the company had opted to halt factory operations rather than fire the union members.

Since legal procedures can take a very long time and are seldom guaranteed in such cases, both sides appear to be depending on their actions. What's more, judicial rulings – especially those favouring workers – are seldom enforced.

Differences between the workers themselves have made the situation even more complicated. Some workers were asked by the management to go to a location near the factory. They are receiving part of their monthly salaries, as well as other benefits.

"Those workers want work to resume work to be able to receive their full salaries," said the management source.

Youssef said: "We understand the pressures some of our colleagues face. Many suffer from serious illnesses and can't meet the costs of their monthly treatment."

Each side is working to secure public sympathy. On Monday, members of Ideal's trade union – along with workers fired from other companies and leftist political activists – staged a protest outside the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) in Cairo.

On Tuesday, other workers joined the protest, calling on the ETUF to enforce the Zagazig attorney-general's decision.

Ideal Standard International workers had originally demanded a risk allowance and insurance over the whole wage, among other things.

It was not the first time for members of Ideal Standard's trade union – formed in the wake of the 2011 revolution – to be punished. Since its founding, the union has organised two successful – albeit brief – sit-ins.

The first was in early May of 2011, after two union members were transferred to distant locations. The second, which lasted only three days, took place in April of last year, and ended with workers receiving increased shares of corporate profits.

While company management says it ensures the rights of its workers, there have been many complaints of ill treatment and a lack of healthcare and safety measures.

"Firing workers for union activity has become a trend in different companies lately," said Hisham Fouad, a researcher at the Cairo-based Welad Al-Ard Labour Research Centre. Many investors, he said, have opted to leave after facing labour actions.

A report by the Centre for Trade Unions and Services (CTUWS) cited 4,600 company closures in 2012.

"Many of these companies, facing market troubles or energy price increases, have used workers to pressure the government," said Rahma Refeat [from CTUWS], adding that workers – due to a lack of experience – do not always choose the best timing for strikes.

"For example, if the company is experiencing low demand, management might temporarily close to save costs," she explained.

One famous story was that of Mohamed Farag Amer, chairman of processed foods giant Faragalla Group. He closed the company hiring thousands of workers for few days in February. At the time, he publicly announced the closure of all the group's factories in Alexandria due to ongoing labour unrest.

Amer even went so far as sending an open letter to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, in which he slammed Morsi's administration for what he described as its failure to curb "cheap bargaining tactics, extortion, moral deviance and unjustified pressures" practiced by workers.

Workers' post-revolution hopes for the right to organise have since faded, with a draft law for independent trade unions – sponsored by Ahmed Hassan El-Borai, Egypt's first post-revolution manpower minister – still in limbo.

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