Egyptian textile workers win pay increases

Workers at a state-owned textile plant in Mahalla, Egypt called off a strike planned for September 10 after representatives of the government met with a delegation of workers from the plant and agreed to increase pay. Workers also wanted the government to commit to increasing investment in the plant to make production more efficient but received no guarantees. Workers are worried that without sufficient investment in plant operations, the factory will continue to lose money, which will make it ripe for privatization.

On September 2, the Egyptian Independent Trade Union Federation, the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services, the local union of workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving plant, a government-owned business, issued a  list of demands including higher incentive pay, higher meal allowances, increased profit-sharing, and more investment to upgrade plant operations. Workers also wanted a higher minimum wage tied to inflation and the release of pay checks owed to some workers.

The workers issued a public statement along with their demands saying that their goal wasn’t just to improve conditions of the Misr workers; instead, they were fighting to raise the living standards of all Egyptian workers.

The government, which has banned strikes but has been faced with a growing wave of strikes in the public and private sectors, asked to meet with representatives of the workers in Mahalla in hopes of averting a strike. The two sides met on September 8 and after five hours of negotiations reached an agreement that called for a 100 percent increase in the meal allowance, a 200 percent increase in incentive pay for workers, and smaller incentive increases for supervisors and managers.

The Center for Trade Union and Worker Services reports that these increases apply to all spinning and weaving operations and cotton gins and presses throughout Egypt. The higher pay is to go into effect on October 1.

Labor leaders were pleased with the results of their action and its wider implications. “The victory of the workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving plant will send a message to all waged workers that the weapon of the strike is the only way to win their rights,” said Mustafa Abdul-Aziz, a member of the workers’ negotiating committee.

But there is still some concern among trade unionists and rank-and-file workers that all the problems have not been resolved, foremost being the threat of privatization.

The Mahalla Misr plant is Egypt’s largest textile operation, employing 22,000 workers. It has a production capacity of 5.1 million ready-made swaths of cloth per year, but the plant has been losing money–on purpose say union activists, who think that the plant CEO hopes that the losses will eventually force the government to privatize it.

“Last year our company’s losses reached LE (Egyptian pounds) 144,000 million and this year’s loss has reached LE135,000 million,” said worker activist Kamal el-Fayoumi to Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt’s leading independent daily. “The year before (the CEO) arrived in 2007, we made LE105,000 million, so the loss isn’t our fault. We’re protecting the company.”

Mahalla textile workers have been fighting to improve living standards and protect rights for all workers for a while now. Strikes by Mahalla textile workers in 2006 and 2008 resulted in some improvements and set the stage for the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. They also played an important role in initiating the general strike that finally toppled the Mubarak regime. All of which might explain why the military government was willing to negotiate rather than ignore their demands.

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