Ahram Online in Mahalla: Striking workers insist on CEO's removal

Marwa Hussein in Mahalla, Thursday 20 Feb 2014

Workers at Egypt's biggest public textile company have been striking since February 10 to demand payment of delayed bonuses. Now they are calling for the CEO to go. Ahram Online goes to Mahalla to find out why

Mahalla textile workers
Mahalla textile workers carry a loaf of bread in the strike, Thursday, 20 February 2014 (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

It's noontime on Wednesday at the gates of Mahalla Spinning and Weaving Company, Egypt's biggest public textile company and the site of a much-publicised workers strike since 10 February.

The day before, Tuesday, it was announced in Egyptian media that the strike had ended, after a meeting between employee representatives and investment minister Osama Saleh in which he promised the long-delayed payment of withheld annual bonuses, one of the workers' key demands.

The scene at the textile company is another story, though. The gate is locked. Workers are gathered on both sides, while others are climbing over it. The doors of the administration building are closed and several employees can be seen peeking out from the windows.

"Does this look like a working day?" one of the workers asks. He says the administration closed the gates early after part of the workforce had arrived to give the impression that things were back to normal.

Another worker nearby is holding a tattered copy of investment minister Saleh's statement announcing that striking workers' demands had been met and that the strike was now over.

"This paper does not respond to our demands, nor does it grant us any of our rights," he said.

And so the strike entered its 10th day.

Mahalla textile workers
Mahalla textile workers
Mahalla textile workers carry minimum wage's slogan during the strike (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Some workers arrived on Wednesday believing that work had resumed and were disappointed to see that the factory was still closed, proof that the strikes' demands had not yet been realised.

An employee told Ahram Online that he and many others had gone into the administration building to retrieve important documents, like for medical care, but that the gates had then been locked at 1:30pm so that the workers could not come out and join the strike.

Workers were still angry about a TV appearance the previous Friday by the company's newly-appointed head, Abdel-Fattah El-Zoghba, who said that workers at the textile company earn LE30,000 ($4285) per year – far less than what they actually make.

A worker at the gates on Wednesday showed Ahram Online his payment sheet stating that he's been working at the company for 25 years and still makes LE1700 ($244) per month, or LE20,400 ($2930) annually.

Another worker said that El-Zoghba's announcement had even caused domestic disputes at home, with family members and spouses accusing them of hiding portions of their salaries.

"Give us this salary and we promise we will end the strike," a worker said.

El-Zoghba was not available for comment, nor was former company head Ibrahim Badr, who was removed from his post before the strike began.

Though the government responded early and agreed to pay the workers their delayed installments of yearly bonuses, the workers refused the money, believing that it was simply a one-time payment in order to dissolve the strike.

The same thing happened in July 2012, under the government of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, when striking workers in Mahalla were offered slightly increased bonuses – up from four-and-a-half months of the basic salary to six-and-a-half months.

The current strike in Mahalla is the fourth in less than a year. One of the chief demands is a fixed schedule for the bonuses. Workers that Ahram Online spoke with said they are tired of having to protest every time their money is due.

"We have to make a scandal each time and it is not worth it, all of this for LE600 ($85)," a striking female worker told Ahram Online on Wednesday.

According to the workers, a bonus installment doesn't exceed LE1000 for the most senior employee.

A recurrent demand has been the dismissal of Fouad Abdel-Alim, head of the government holding company that manages 32 Egyptian textile companies, with Mahalla the biggest among them. Some say that the company's problems are wrapped up in Abdel-Alim, who they accuse of being inefficient and corrupt.

Abdel-Alim was first appointed company head in September 2007 and served until February 2011, when he was forced to resign under mounting pressure from striking workers.

In May 2012, however, then-prime minister Kamal El-Ganzouri reinstated Abdel-Alim to his former post.

Many workers believe Abdel-Alim to be guilty of squandering the company's funds, although he has never been officially charged.

"At best, he's an inefficient manager," said Kamal El-Fayoumi, a company employee who has become a renowned figured in Egypt's labour movement since he began organising textile strikes in Mahalla in the years before the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak.

El-Fayoumi points out that the company's spiraling debts began to first accumulate when Abdel-Selim took over in 2007. Since then, the government has bailed out LE950 million ($140m) of the company's losses.

The company saw a net loss of LE157 million ($22.5m) in 2011, according to the official website of Egypt’s public business sector.

Abdel-Alim has hit back at the accusations.

"Workers in Mahalla have personalised the issue because I was strict when I was the head of the company," Abdel-Alim told Ahram Online, adding that his former duties involved dealing solely with the upper-management of textile companies and not the workers.

Abdel-Alim refused to give details about the company's finances or production, but he promised an interview with Ahram Online next week.

Workers at the Mahalla plant also complain of bad working conditions, low salaries and unsatisfactory health care. They are calling for the implementation of the same LE1200 per month salary promised to all state employees in a decree issued in December. Although the minimum wage law was supposed to go into effect in January, state workers have not yet received their updated salaries.

Many workers feel that they are stigmatised by the company's management, the workers' union and the media, which they accuse of distorting the truth of their strikes.

"Media and officials say we are pro-Morsi or from the 6 April movement [a leftist coalition of political groups], but we only need our rights," said one worker. "We are pro-bread."

According to workers' account, the company's administration is overly-strict with its employees, deducting salaries for sick leaves or even arriving five minutes late to work. Three days of absence for any reason can cost a worker a deduction in the yearly bonus. Many others say they suffer from asthma because of working with cotton fibers.

Mahalla textile workers began a wave of labour action in 2006. At the time, the annual bonus was LE89 ($13) per worker. The workers managed at the time to increase the bonus to the equivalent of two months' salary, about 20 percent of the annual wage. 

In 2008, Mahalla was home to the then-largest anti-regime protest of the Mubarak era when a planned workers' strike morphed into a popular uprising following clashes with the police.

Workers have managed to successfully campaign for more rights since then, like in 2011 when they gained the same monthly bonus of LE220 ($32) that was then given to all public textile workers.

As the February 2014 strike continues in Mahalla, at least seven public textile companies have announced partial or total strikes in solidarity with the workers' demands. 

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