Strikes in public sector textile companies reach new high
Image from a previous Mahalla strike - Courtesy: Mohamed al-Saeed

A labor uprising in the textile industry is witnessing an unprecedented number of factory occupations, solidarity strikes and other protest actions among over 45,000 workers. At least 13 public sector textile companies have been on strike for the past nine consecutive days.

These tens of thousands of disgruntled workers have their sights set on the Textile Holding Company, the state-managed umbrella company that administers a total of 32 affiliated textile companies across the country.

At the heart of these massive and coordinated industrial actions is the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla. It is Egypt’s largest textile mill and employs over 22,000 workers. The Mahalla workers launched their strike on February 10 and have been the focal point of this public sector textile uprising.

Across companies and governorates, these textile workers’ grievances and general demands are nearly identical. Topping their list of common demands is recalling Fouad Abdel Aleem — president of the Textile Holding Company — whom they accuse of repeated administrative failures, financial mismanagement and corruption. Rooting out corruption in these public sector companies is the chief objective around which the workers have united.

While the Textile Holding Company held its general assembly meeting on Tuesday, it does not appear to have acted upon workers’ demands to recall Abdel Aleem.

“Thus far we’ve received no response from the Holding Company regarding our demands,” said Kamal al-Fayyoumi, a worker and strike leader at the Mahalla company.

“We are being ignored and our demands are being disregarded. However, our unified strike will eventually succeed in saving the public textile industry from corrupt administrators and from corruption within the Holding Company,” he added.

The workers’ other demands include the provision of the newly applied LE 1,200 monthly minimum wage (around $US 175). This demand originated at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla during a strike in December 2006, but the Mahalla company, along with all other companies affiliated to the Textile Holding Company, have been denied this new minimum wage.

Workers have also been demanding labor representation on their companies’ administrative boards (as stipulated by the national constitution and law), the re-operation of stalled companies and factories (to their original capacity), and the reinstatement of sacked workers, along with the payment of overdue profit shares.

The public sector textile industry has been incurring billions of pounds worth of losses for several years now, and company administrators point out that there are no profits to be shared. 

Instead company administrators have offered to provide these periodic profit-shares in the form of bonuses — to augment the workers’ meager basic wages.

With the commencement of the strike in Mahalla, Abdel Aleem told the state-owned MENA news agency that the Textile Holding Company and the Cabinet have tentatively agreed to plans to provide LE 6 billion to develop and restructure this once-prosperous industry.

In an attempt to end this massive wave of strikes, the Textile Holding Company announced that it had allocated an additional LE 70 million to its monthly budget — so as to augment workers’ wages in this sector.

The striking textile workers have refused to accept the proposed bonus payments, however — until their primary demand is realized.

Administrators claim that the strike isn’t helping the textile industry, but harming it further. At the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla, administrative board members have told state media outlets that their company has incurred over LE 20 million in lost revenue since the strike began. Estimates suggest that the strikes and industrial actions at all 13 companies have cost the Holding Company over LE 45 million in losses.

Striking workers, however, have blamed the Textile Holding Company for billions of pounds worth of losses incurred since the 1990s.

Conflicting governmental and independent estimates suggest that the Holding Company has incurred losses of between 6 billion pounds and tens of billions of pounds since the 1990s.

Furthermore, as a result of privatization policies initiated in the 1990s, the state-owned spinning and weaving industries, which had employed some 360,000 workers, now employ a mere 60,000.

According to Fayyoumi, “The Holding Company intentionally implements policies to incur losses among the public sector textile companies, in the hopes of failing and then privatizing these companies.”

Fayyoumi explained that the Mahalla company was profitable and did not incurred losses until Abdel Aleem took over its administration around 10 years ago. 

A strike at the company in 2007 forced Abdel Aleem out of Mahalla’s administrative board — but to the dismay of the striking workers, he was promoted to preside over the entire Textile Holding Company instead.

Fayyoumi said that not only had dozens of public sector companies incurred losses under Abdel Aleem’s administration, but that most of them had their factories and production lines stalled as a result of his policies.

“Prior to this strike, we were operating at a mere 40 percent of our capacity at Mahalla,” he said. “Other companies have been operating at only 30 percent of their original capacity.”

Workers and labor analysts have attributed this decrease in production and capacity to a lack of raw materials, to the use of outdated machinery, and to modern machinery which is not designed to work with long-staple Egyptian cotton.

“We demand increased investment in our companies,” Fayyoumi said. “We also demand the establishment of new administrative committees with genuine workers’ representation among them so as to keep our companies in check and free of corruption.”

While Abdel Aleem has made no mention of stepping down from the Holding Company, he told MENA that he hopes to radically restructure the public sector textile companies via industrial consulting companies within two or three years.

On February 13 the state-owned Al-Gomhurriya newspaper denounced the wave of textile strikes as being “manipulated from above by remote control” at the hands of those who seek to exploit striking workers to harm Egypt’s economy.

In a press conference at the Journalists’ Syndicate on February 15, Fatma Ramadan, deputy chief of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, responded to this denunciation and others in the state-owned media.

“There is no room or basis or justification for slandering Egypt’s workers as being agents or traitors,” said Ramadan.

“Those who toil, build and struggle for Egypt’s advancement are not traitors. The real traitors are those corrupt officials who steal and squander public funds,” she added. “Textile workers in Mahalla and many other companies are demanding an end to the corrupt practices of officials who continue to drain the state’s coffers.”

“The striking workers’ demands are geared toward improving Egypt’s economy and its industries, toward the realization of social and economic rights,” she said.

This week several representatives and delegates from public sector textile companies have sought the intercession of the Ministry of Manpower and the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) to resolve the impasse between them and the Textile Holding Company.

Minister of Manpower Kamal Abu Eita announced Tuesday that he hopes to resolve the crisis.

“I have no jurisdiction regarding the sacking of the Textile Holding Company’s chief,” Abu Eita told media outlets on Sunday.

The Textile Holding Company falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Investment.

Statements have been issued by the Ministry of Investment this week regarding discussion of Abdel Aleem’s removal from office, but it has not yet set a date for such a decision.

ETUF president Gebali al-Maraghi also emphasized that he would push for the realization of the striking textile workers’ demands, although — like Abu Eita — he announced that neither he nor his federation could bring about Abdel Aleem’s resignation.

Jano Charbel