KAFR AL-DUWAR, Egypt (AFP) -A wave of strikes has spread through Egypt’s key textile sector as factory workers demand higher wages amid fears that the government’s new economic programme will cost them their livelihoods.
The response from government officials and factory chiefs has been a piecemeal mixture of concessions and threats that by Thursday had ended two of the biggest textile factory strikes.
But despite having some of the world’s best cotton and a thriving garment sector, concerns remain over the government’s ability to revive decrepit factories responsible for turning raw cotton into thread to make clothes.
Critics of Egypt’s ambitious economic reform programme to modernize the economy and encourage investment say it has caused consumer prices to rise 160 percent in two years.
The government-owned textile sector has long been one of the biggest money-losers in the country, with many factories plagued by poor management and old equipment that have left them burdened with debt.
Among them is the massive crumbling state-owned spinning and weaving factory in the industrial Nile Delta town of Kafr al-Duwar, whose chairman Ali Ghalab, said the company was more than three billion Egyptian pounds (500 million dollars) in the red.
“We used to give bonuses to the workers when the company was doing well but not anymore,” Ghalab said.
Such practices helped spur the Kafr al-Duwar factory’s 11,700 workers to strike, and on Thursday, the fifth day of the industrial action, the provincial governor himself, Mohammed Shaarawi, paid a visit to the factory.
The angry crowd of 1,000 workers occupying the plant fell silent as the governor stepped out of his limousine, accompanied only by a few officials.
Shaarawi outlined a list of decrees that more or less met the workers demands for more money and better medical care, and then told them he expected them at work Saturday.
“It could be better, but it might turn out all right,” said a grizzled worker looking on as the others cheered. “He gave us what we wanted, but only indirectly, because the other companies will want the same.”
Soaring inflation — a mere four percent in 2004 but reaching 12 percent in the first weeks of 2007 — and the spectre of privatization have terrified workers who fear the changes will mean lost jobs or lower wages.
A second eight-day strike that ended this week in the Delta town of Shibeen al-Kom was at a spinning plant that had just been sold to Indian investor IndoRama International.
In December, 15,000 workers from the Mahalla textile plant, one of the largest in the world, went on strike demanding unpaid bonuses. When the government acquiesced, new strikes soon erupted across the country, from poultry factories to cement plants to refrigerator companies.
For a government hoping to attract investors with stories of a low cost, skilled labour force, the strikes are dangerous and have been blamed on outside agitators.
“The Muslim Brotherhood stands behind every single problem in every factory,” charged Kafr al-Duwar chairman Ghalab, referring to the largest opposition movement in the country.
But according to leftist labour activist Kamal Abbas of the Centre for Trade Union Rights, the ineffectiveness of the government-controlled labour unions is the whole reason the workers have had to resort to this rash of wildcat strikes.
“The problem is that no one can speak for them,” he said. “No one negotiates for them with owners, whether private sector or the government.”
The government-run labour unions in turn accuse labour activists like Abbas of being behind all the strikes.
“The union doesn’t care about us, they have their own concerns,” said Khaled Ali, a Kafr al-Duwar worker standing outside the factory just before the governor made his appearance.
He showed a pay stub that set his monthly salary at 288 Egyptian pounds (50 dollars), which when augmented by various company bonuses reached 500 pounds (88 dollars).
“I am older than most of you and I remember this factory in its days of glory and together we will restore it,” the governor concluded, telling the workers a restructuring plan promised six months earlier by the ministers of investment and industry offered hope.
“They’ve been saying there is plan for the last three years, but they never actually implemented it,” harrumphed one worker, who admitted he was ready to go home after sleeping in the factory for the last five nights.