By Olga Rodríguez /Translation: Blanca García
Dozens of thousands of Egyptian workers gathered this Sunday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to celebrate May 1st, for the first time in freedom and with independent unions.
Some of the most heard chants were directed against the policies of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank and in favor of Social Justice and workers’ rights.
There was also criticism for the only union federation that existed during the regime, whose leader, Hussein Megawer, is being investigated for corruption.
“The time of the Egyptian workers has come. It is our moment, we have to make the most of it to achieve a country with social justice”, as socialist leader Kamel Kahlil pointed out, who officially announced the launching of the Workers’ Party.
During the act a statement signed by 29 organizations was presented, among them, the Young Revolutionaries Commission, several left-wing groups, independent unions and Human Rights organizations.
Petitions to the courts to nationalize companies
The workers’ fight in Egypt has been key to the revolution and still has an undeniable leading role.
Every week there are strikes to demand labor rights and decent salaries in a country in which 40% of the population lives under the poverty threshold, in which there is no public health attention and in which workers get paid around $70 a month for working at least eight hours a day, six days a week.
“One of the most interesting processes in this second stage of the revolution is the attempt to take back private companies”
There are already dozens of petitions that workers have brought to the courts demanding the nationalization of factories and companies who used to be public, sold years ago to foreign corporations during what became known as the Egyptian economic reform, promoted by the IMF and the World Bank.
With said reform hundreds of companies were sold often at prices lower than their real cost. Their new owners, instead of investing in them, have often used them to speculate with the sale of their terrains.
The case of a historical clothing chain
One of the cases that is creating a lot of buzz in the Egyptian press is the one of the historic chain of clothing Omar Effendi, in its day an icon of the Egyptian service sector.
“Effendi was sold in 2006 to a Saudi company and since then the chain has only registered losses and accumulated debts”
Last February the coordinator of the “Don’t sell Egypt” movement, Yahia Hussein Abdel-Hadi, brought charges against the former Investment minister and the director of the General Holdings company for having made the State lose money on purpose with the sale of Effendi to the Saudi company Anwal “for a sale 700 million Egyptian pounds lower than its estimated value”.
Shortly after Hamid El Fakharani, the lawyer who represents the workers, filed a lawsuit in which he maintains that Effendi was sold for a quarter of its real value and that is why he defends that said transaction was not valid. A courthouse is due to rule on May 7th whether Effendi goes back to being public property.
The textile factory of Shebeen El Kom
Another one of the cases that are being talked about the most is the Shebeen El Kom textile factory, located about 80 km from Cairo.
In 2007 the State sold it for below its real price to an Indonesian corporation that works for well-known brands such as Nike and Adidas.
The staff went from having 5,800 workers to being reduced -gradually- to 1,200 in staff and 600 more without a yearly contract.
Last February 5th, three days before the fall of Mubarak, many of the countries factories stopped. Those strikes were decisive for the dictator’s exit.
The Shebeen El Kom workers joined the strike for days. On March 5th they resumed it and since then they keep it up. They’ve been on strike for a month and a half.
“We ask that the company be nationalized, we have already filed a complaint to the courthouse. We also demand a minimum wage of 1,200 pounds”, explains to Human Journalism Mohamed El Nagar, one of the oldest workers, who in spite of 38 years as an employee, only earns 1,100 pounds a month, including expenses.
(In the video: Shebeen El Kom workers chant “united workers will never be defeated” during the visit of the Workers’ Party leader, Kamal Khalil, April 2011)
“As soon as the factory was sold they started to fire us. They were supposed to be buying it to reorganize, invest in it, to fix it, but instead they started to take it apart. They bought it to eliminate the competition”, complains Mohamed Awad, a 33 year old worker.
Taking a look at the facilities one notices a great degree of neglect. Several premises are already empty, in others there’s no more activity than that of the spiders weaving their webs over abandoned machines.
In one of the compounds pieces of scrap pile up. A sign at the entrance of a waste ground, former cotton warehouse, announces that it has been rented out to another company. Several employees insisted on showing this journalist the state of the bathrooms, broken down and without the least health or hygiene conditions.
“Since the company was sold security measures are not kept either. We don’t have headphones to soothe the noise from the machines, nor glasses to protect us from the dust from the fabrics, nor face masks, despite working with materials that harm the respiratory tract”, explains the veteran El Nagar.
The workers at Shebeen El Kom have joined forces in a new independent union and have gotten the support of other factories in the country, like the already historical textile factory in Mahalla, where in 2006 3,000 female workers kicked off a series of strikes that have multiplied themselves since then and that marked the prologue of the Egyptian revolution.
“If us workers stand together, we will win”, Kamal El-Fayoumi, union lider of Mahalla, tells Human Journalism.
Some counterrevolutionaries are accusing us of stopping the country, of ruining it. No, they’re wrong. Workers never stop a country; the build it.
Several of the movements that encouraged the revolution are in contact with the workers. It’s the case of the April 6th Movement and the Young People for Justice and Freedom.
“The workers supported the young people in the first stage of the revolution and now the young people of the revolution support the workers”, indicates Naguib Kamel, a member of the latter.
Sheima Hamdi, only 23 years old, is another one of the members of this young people’s movement. Several uploads on Youtube of her public interventions have made her known throughout the country.
The strength of her speech has been enough to earn her the nickname on the Net of “the strongest woman in Egypt”. “The Shebeen El Kom case represents the cause of all of Egypt’s workers. That’s why we are following it and supporting it so closely”, she points out.
Last April 5th hundreds of Shebeen El Kom workers protested at the government headquarters to demand negotiating directly with the owners.
Seeing the presence of several local and foreign media outlets, regional authorities were forced to act as spontaneous spokespersons for the workers, with the help of the already experienced Mahalla union leaders.
The managers ended up offering more expenses, longer contracts and the readmission of half of the workers who were laid off without a severance pay. The workers were pleased, but they felt that the offer is not enough.
Keeping that stance is not easy. They haven’t gotten their wages in the last two months and it is starting to take a toll. The resistance strongbox doesn’t go too far. But apart from some exceptions, the whole staff of the factory has made up its mind: To hold on together.
Now they wait for the court’s verdict, that this month of May, if the date is not postponed, will have to decide on the petition to nationalize Shebeen El Kom.
The levels of inequality and poverty in Egypt have reached unbearable levels because of the neoliberal and corrupt policies of the regime.
The discredit on the chronic capitalism practiced in the last few years is not only present in the minds of the Socialists, but also in moderate Democratic sectors fed up with the unstoppable enrichment of a corrupt and repressing elite opposite to the impoverishment to the majority of the population.
The left-wing knows this, which is why it is hurrying to set up solid networks and to promote initiatives with a clear objective: to achieve a new economic and political system more fair, more equal and more balanced.