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In Egypt, fighting for a $50-a-month factory job

By Tarek El-tablawy

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, July 16 2011 11:06 a.m. MDT

In this June 23, 2011 photo, Samah Eissa, 28 talks with bandages on her head and hand at the family house in Qafr el-Genena, Mansoura, Egypt. Mariam Hawas lost her life trying to collect her monthly salary. Egyptians have long complained that the cheapest thing in this country is their lives. Under the former regime, wages in the public sector , the single largest employer , were miserably low and the already vast gap between rich and poor only widened.

Nasser Nasser, Associated Press

TALKHA, Egypt — The sun was already searing the pavement on the early June morning when Mariam Hawas and her co-workers from the garment factory descended on the bank.

The bank employees knew why they'd come and rushed to bolt the doors.

The roughly 100 workers, most of them women, were looking for unpaid back wages from the United Bank in the city of Mansoura, until recently the largest shareholder in their factory. Labor protests like this are sweeping across Egypt after the uprising in January, as workers scramble to right decades of economic injustice.

Hawas, a 44-year-old mother of three, was hoping to collect her monthly salary from April — 300 pounds ($50). But as the workers pounded on the doors, the bank employees responded with taunts from inside their air-conditioned offices.

"You can knock from now until next year," one jeered. "Go and block traffic in the streets if you want your rights," said another.

And so they did.

Traffic was snarled, temperatures and tempers were rising.

A truck driver climbed out to see what the commotion was about, and a frustrated policeman directing traffic goaded him on.

"Run them over. The blood money for each one is 50 pounds ($8)," the policeman said, according to several factory workers who witnessed the scene.

The driver climbed back into the cab of his truck. The engine revved, once, then a second time. On the third time, the truck lurched forward.

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Egyptians have long complained that the cheapest thing in this country is their lives.

Under the former regime, wages in the public sector — the single largest employer — were miserably low and the already vast gap between rich and poor only widened. The public sector minimum wage stood at about 300 pounds ($50) per month, including standard bonuses.

While the cost of living soared, unemployment spread like an incurable disease. The hundreds of thousands of new entrants into the job market far eclipsed the number of jobs created in this nation of 80 million.

Poverty was a key catalyst for the 18-day uprising earlier this year, which forced President Hosni Mubarak out and raised hopes for improved working conditions. The success of the protesters emboldened millions of workers to seek better pay, and fast — perhaps faster than the country's embattled economy can accommodate, say some officials and businessmen.

For workers, the changes since Mubarak's ouster on Feb. 11 are coming far too slowly.

"A worker who earns 189 pounds ($31) a month is not going to go home and tell his children: 'Wait six months for elections,'" said prominent Egyptian labor activist Hossam el-Hamalawy. "There is a feeling that if we don't get it now, we may never have a chance."

Sporadic strikes became daily events. They spread to the banking, public transportation, textile, construction and medical industries. Workers for the vital Suez Canal, one of Egypt's main foreign currency earners, joined in the strikes.

Employees confronted their bosses, sometimes violently, challenging large inequalities of pay, poor working conditions, a lack of job security and benefits, and even managers' ties to the ousted ruling party and the old regime.

"This is first of all an enormous social movement, the likes of which Egypt and the rest of the Arab world have not seen for a very long time," said Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University who has long studied Egypt's labor problems. "The fact it is being sustained and advanced is, in and of itself, an achievement."

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