By Menna Zaki
A strike by 17,000 workers at Egypt’s largest public sector textile company entered its sixth day Monday, making it the largest and longest-lasting Mahallah workers action since ex-army general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took office over a year ago.
Labor Minister Gamal Sorour said after meetings on Monday with officials in Gharbiya province, home to the beleaguered Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, that workers must resume production immediately so that within 48 hours Prime Minister Sherif Ismail will reach a “suitable agreement for the them,” warning that “legal measures will be taken against any attempts to obstruct work.”
The Higher Administrative Court last April ruled that public sector employees who take part in sit-ins on the job could be punished for impeding the ability of public institutions to deliver services "which constitute a right for citizens."
The ruling raised the ire of labor activists then who say it violated Article 15 of the 2014 Constitution and worry that this precedent could be abused to force striking workers in the public sector into early retirement.
According to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) at least three workers were suspended on charges of "inciting other workers to strike": Mostafa al-Alfy, Adnan al-Sherbiny and Mohamed Asaad al-Morsy.
The Mahallah strike
The Mahallah workers refused to pick up their October paychecks and began striking because they were not given a 10 percent social bonus promised by Sisi retroactively starting July.
The actions was triggered by 3,000 clothing workers on Oct. 21 but swelled to include the rest of the factory within three days.
The current strike comes amid heightened urban consumer inflation which jumped to 9.2 percent in September, according to the official statistics agency CAPMAS.
It also comes during difficult economic times in Egypt, which is still reeling from the aftermath of years of social and economic turmoil following the January 2011 uprising. The economic slowdown has led to the depreciation of the Egyptian pound against the dollar and, according to officials, has necessitated a sweeping policy of subsidy reduction, which has taken a heavy toll on low income families.
In September Sisi issued a law granting a 10 percent social bonus, calculated as a percentage of the basic salary, to public sector workers who are not covered by the new civil service Law No. 18/2015, itself the subject of heated debate. The striking workers believe they are entitled to this social bonus.
However, on the same week the ministry of finance issued detailed regulations and specifications of the law, denying some public sector workers the bonus. Mahallah workers were among them.
A lawyer from the ECESR Alaa Abdel Tawab explained to Aswat Masriya that according to Sisi’s Law No. 99/2015, public workers not included in the civil service law are entitled to this 10 percent, claiming that the law “was misinterpreted by the finance ministry” which issued by-law No. 442/2015, falsely broadening the sectors it considers to be exceptions to that rule.
“The finance minister excluded not only the six million employees subject to the civil service law, but also some workers in the public and private sector,” said Abdel Tawab.
Company runs losses, workers face inflation
The Misr Spinning and Weaving Company is a public company established in the early 20th century and has a long history of labour struggle dating back to the time of the British occupation of Egypt.
Chairman of the Cotton and Textile Industries Holding Company Ahmed Mostafa told the media that the strike is costing the state estimated losses of EGP 4 million a day.
In media interviews, senior manager at the factory Ibrahim Bedeir said the company has run losses in 2014 that amounted to LE 640 million, which they plan to decrease by half at least.
Company administrators have reportedly blamed the recurring labor strikes for negatively affecting production levels and thus causing revenue losses.
Workers were also told that since they receive an annual seven percent raise, they are not entitled to the 10 percent social allowance.
Negotiations involving workers’ representatives were held on Saturday in the presence of the company's director of security as well as Mahallah's director of national security but in the absence of the company's executive manager.
According to Reda Roshdy, who attended the meeting, fifteen workers, mainly heads of departments were chosen to speak on behalf of the rest.
But despite Roshdy's assertion that Saturday's meeting ended with an agreement to add three percent to the annual increase and to hike the food allowance by EGP 90 pounds, from EGP 210 to be EGP 300, the strike still continued.
Mohamed Al-Attar, a worker at the textile company argued that the annual seven percent salary increase has nothing to do with the social allowance the workers are demanding.
Attar was taken in for an interrogation one day before the strike began. He is known for his active participation in the April 6, 2008 strike and in a punitive measure, he was forcefully relocated to Alexandria for three years, only returning to his hometown of Mahallah after the 2011 uprising, which unseated Mubarak.
In 2008 the Mahallah textile workers had planned a strike which pro-democracy activists supported through online campaigns to protest against the increased cost of living and low wages.
The workers were reportedly infiltrated by plainclothes policemen who intimidated them and the strike never took place. Yet, calls for solidarity led to street clashes with police and the birth of the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the groups that electrified the January uprising.
Attar argued that the social allowance has been given to workers by law for years since Mubarak's era to counter inflation.
He explained that the 10 percent is added to the basic salary every five years and will impact both the amount workers receive upon their retirement and their pensions.
Canceling this allowance would then deny workers the cumulative increase of their basic salaries over time.
Fatma Ramadan, head of the labor rights unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, confirmed that the workers are entitled to the 10 percent, but that the refusal to pay it is part of a bigger plan to decrease the compensations of public sector workers.
The government is trying to cut spending on salaries in all public sectors except the Interior Ministry, the armed forces, the judiciary and banks among other politically strategic sectors, she said.
(Additional reporting by Hend Kortam)