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Women were braver than a hundred men

Feature by Anne Alexander and Farah Koubaissy, January 2008

Resistance to the neoliberal policies of the Egyptian government has led to a strike wave involving thousands of workers. Anne Alexander describes how women have played a key role in the struggle and Farah Koubaissy visits a tobacco factory where one woman, Hagga Aisha, has led the strikes.

"Egypt: open for business" runs a headline on the Egyptian government's investment website. World Bank officials appear to agree. Last October they named Egypt "Top Performer in Doing Business 2008". Economic growth is strong, averaging 7 percent per year over the past three years. At the urging of the International Monetary Fund, the government began a privatisation programme in 1991 which has led to the sell-off of hundreds of state-run firms, while cuts in corporation taxes have made life easier and more profitable for both foreign and domestic investors. But behind the facade of glossy investment brochures and flashy websites there is another side to Egypt's economic "success": rampant inflation which has pushed millions of Egyptian workers to the margins of survival and led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs.

For the past year a strike wave has been rolling through Egypt's industrial heartland. Thousands of Egypt's working poor have struck back at the brutal neoliberal policies of their government — occupying their workplaces to demand the payment of overdue wages and bonuses and taking to the streets to demand the sacking of corrupt bosses and union officials. Textile workers, railway workers, tobacco packers, postal workers, teachers, even tax collectors have given voice to the growing anger of Egypt's working class.

The untold story of the past year is the crucial role of women workers in organising the biggest wave of industrial action for a generation. Women workers have emerged as rank and file trade union organisers and are playing a leading part in challenging the corrupt government-run trade union federation. Their actions have won remarkable successes — across Egypt worried state officials and managers have promised wage rises, back pay and payment of benefits.

A crucial factor in the background has been the wave of pro-democracy protests which spread across Egypt in 2005. Although there are few direct connections between the emerging workers' movement and the democracy movement, the strike wave is part of a broader pattern of mobilisation from below against Mubarak's dictatorship. Crucially, the strike has the potential to revitalise the democracy movement, as workers draw their own conclusions about the need for political change.

Lowest paid

Women make up around 20 percent of Egypt's workforce and are employed mainly in agriculture, teaching and public administration; industrial workers account for slightly less than 5 percent of the female labour force. Rates of pay are appallingly low, particularly in the textile sector, which employs large numbers of women. Egyptian weavers in the private sector can earn around £90 a month, approximately double the rates paid to their counterparts in the public sector. Women are often concentrated in the lowest-paid and least-skilled jobs. Garment workers at the Mansura-Espana factory, for example, earn as little as £11 per month. Unskilled jobs are also most likely to be filled by workers without contracts, or those on short term contracts. One recent study of the textile industry found that even in relatively large workplaces up to 65 percent of the workforce were working without contracts.

The current round of strikes began in December 2006. Workers in the state textile factory in the industrial town of Mahalla al-Kubra were waiting anxiously for their pay packets. Prime minister Ahmad Nazif, a staunch neoliberal and enthusiast for privatisation, had promised all public sector workers an annual bonus equivalent to two months pay. Disappointment quickly turned to fury as workers discovered that they had received only the standard bonus. Some 3,000 women garment workers stormed into the main spinning and weaving sheds and demanded that their male colleagues stop work. "Where are the men? Here are the women!" they chanted. Then 10,000 workers gathered in the factory courtyard and once again women were at the forefront. Strike leader Muhammad Attar later recalled, "The women almost tore apart every representative from management who came to negotiate."

Events at the Mansura-Espana garments company in the town of Talkha in the Nile Delta show how even the most vulnerable workers can find the strength to challenge the remorseless logic of neoliberal capitalism. Three quarters of the factory's 284 workers are women. Until recently workers were expected to work overtime for 14p an hour and punished with cuts in their salaries if they refused.

On 21 April this year 150 of the workforce declared a strike. Rumours were rife that the land on which the factory stood had been sold to a property developer and that the main shareholder, Egyptian United Bank, was planning to shut down the company. Fearing that they would be locked out and the factory closed, strikers took over the shop floor, sleeping between the machines at night. According to Hossam el-Hamalawy, a journalist and activist who visited the strikers in May, one manager threatened to report the women to the police on trumped-up charges of "prostitution" because they were spending the night in the company of their male colleagues. In June five women activists, Souad Mamdouh, Souad Salama, Sabreen Sabri, Hoda Said and Nermin Abbas, and their male colleague Mohsen el-Shaer were sacked and referred to the police for investigation on charges of inciting the strike.

Despite increasing pressure from the police, officials from the state-run Textile Workers Federation and management, the strikers held out for two months, only ending their occupation after an agreement was signed guaranteeing the future of the factory. Management and government officials also conceded other demands including the back payment of some unpaid bonuses, no victimisations and payment for the period of the strike.

The Mansoura-Espana factory occupation shows how even a brief taste of workers' collective power undermines the oppressive relationships which structure our society. Suddenly the previously unthinkable idea of spending nights away from home, sleeping on a factory floor with male work colleagues, became a reality. Habits of deference to abusive bosses, fear of the secret police and passive acceptance of the role of government trade union officials were all shaken to the core. As one of the strikers explained after the negotiation of a deal to save the factory, managers and state officials had also become painfully aware of the workers' collective strength: "The management now knows what we are capable of… If they don't give us the rest of our rights we will occupy the factory again."

The transforming power of workers' action is also visible in Mahalla al-Kubra. Women workers were involved at the heart of a week-long occupation of the factory in September 2007 over management's failure to implement concessions won during the December 2006 strike. In the process they have not only gained confidence in their capacity to lead resistance, but also changed the views of many of their male colleagues. As one of the male workers told journalists from the socialist newspaper Al-Ishtiraki, during the second strike, "We don't talk about 'women' and 'men' here. The women of Misr Spinning [factory] are braver than a hundred men. They are standing shoulder to shoulder with the men in the strike."


A new generation of trade union leaders

Aisha Abd-al-Aziz Abu-Samada is one of a growing layer of trade union activists who are challenging the state-run official union federations. The key organiser and spokesperson for workers in the Hennawi Tobacco factory in the Delta town of Damanhur, she is better known as Hagga Aisha — a term of respect for someone who has completed the Muslim pilgrimage.

The largely women workers at the private company face atrocious working conditions. The pace of work is relentless. Today the factory employs 350 to do the work that 1,000 did five years ago. They work long hours, starting at 8 in the morning and finishing around 6 at night, for a daily wage of 98p. The work is exhausting and unhealthy. The workers constantly inhale tobacco dust, and many suffer from respiratory diseases. Since new management took over in April 2003, the company has stopped providing plastic shoes and protective gear for the workers. Company security guards frequently harass the workers, often singling out those who stand up to management bullying.

As one of the women workers explained, "I have been working in the factory since I was 11 years old and have served 25 years with the company. Despite this they have refused to promote me or lighten my workload. There were 25 girls doing this work before, but now there are only five of us so the pressure has increased. One time I was five minutes late for work and they fined me six pounds, which is half my daily wage. I went to complain to the boss and he said, 'If you drop this issue I'll make you a supervisor.' But I refused and went to try and get justice in the courts."

In April 2003 the new managers decided to cancel the workers' social allowance and cut their annual bonus from the 85 days set down in law to 30 days. Aisha was one of a group of workers who launched a court case against the company. She also organised a number of strikes over the unpaid bonuses. As a member of the factory's union committee she began to campaign for the union to defend the workers' rights, but quickly found that the other committee members were more interested in reaching a deal with management. Aisha's persistent refusal to sign up to a shoddy compromise put her on a collision course with the rest of the union committee. She did everything she could to derail the deal. They stopped inviting her to their meetings. It was this experience which convinced her that the union committee was taking decisions which were against the interests of the workers. In March this year her fears were confirmed when the union committee signed a new collective agreement with management which settled the dispute by offering the workers a lump sum of £8 for their unpaid bonuses and allowances, when in reality they were owed between £212 and £397.

Managers and union officials probably thought that the matter was closed, but the workers had other ideas. On 4 August Hagga Aisha and a group of colleagues informed management and the union committee that unless their bonuses and allowances were paid a strike would begin the next day. The following morning around 100 workers occupied the factory, while another 100 piled into a flotilla of buses and headed off to Cairo for protests outside the Ministry of Labour and the General Federation of Trade Unions.

Hagga Aisha took on the role of spokesperson as well as organising the strike. She liaised with the media and made sure that journalists were there to hear the strikers' stories on 5 August. She arranged the transport from Damanhur to the ministry headquarters in the Cairo suburb of Madinat Nasr and led a delegation of workers to the General Federation of Trade Unions.

Bureaucrats from the General Union for Food Industries were stunned to receive a petition signed by hundreds of the workers announcing that they had withdrawn confidence from the factory union committee and demanding elections for new officials. When the strikers met the minister of labour, Aisha Abd-al-Hadi, Hagga Aisha was part of the negotiating team. She was the only member of the factory union committee who stood up for the workers' demands, despite their efforts to keep her isolated.

Leading role

Other women threw themselves enthusiastically into the strike. They gave detailed information about their complaints and demands to the media, providing documents to back up their stories. In addition they played a fantastic organisational role. They divided up responsibilities, turning up for the strike with everything they could easily carry from the larder at home — cheese, fruit juice and bread — and divided it up among the strikers who were camping out in front of the ministry. They knew that the day would be very full and food and drink would help keep the strikers' voices strong after their long, tiring journey. Even visiting journalists were not allowed to escape without sharing a hunk of cheese or a drink of mango juice, because, as one of the strikers put it, "we're all in this together".

Surprisingly, perhaps, in a country where women rarely stand up to claim all their rights, I felt that both men and women welcomed Aisha's leading role in the strike. The strikers had the greatest respect for her and considered that she was demanding the rights of all the workers — women and men. I did not perceive any division of roles on the basis of gender. I was impressed by the atmosphere of unity and cooperation between men and women workers, and by their strong sense that they faced the same conditions and shared the same struggle for justice.

When I asked Hagga Aisha whether there were tensions or divisions between men and women, she said it was a secondary issue in terms of the conditions the workers faced. Her answer to my question as to whether the members of the union committee disliked her because she was a woman was, "If I had been a man, and stood up for the workers' rights as I did, they would have treated me just the same."

The strike quickly won concessions from the minister of labour, who promised that workers' demands would be met in full. Yet the battle is far from over, as Hagga Aisha faced victimisation from both management and the government union in the aftermath of the strike. What is certain, however, is that she and thousands of women workers like her are no longer alone in their struggle for justice.

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