Labor politicized or politicized labor

Security crackdowns against two labor strikes — at the Suez Steel Company and Scimitar Petroleum Company — and a potential one at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla, have been eclipsed by news of crackdowns against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Receiving negligible media coverage, these industrial actions were crushed by police and the Armed Forces within the span of less than one week. Security forces arrested two strike leaders as they surrounded the Suez Steel Company on August 12, while the strike at the Scimitar Petroleum Company was forcefully put down on August 17 and a host of strikers briefly detained, with legal charges leveled against them.

Furthermore, on August 21, police forces stormed and searched the homes of four workers from the Suez Steel Company and arrested one union leader in the process. Fourteen strikers from the company have been threatened with prosecution and dismissal.

The demands of the Suez Steel Company workers include the payment of their wages for the month of July and the payment of overdue profit-sharing. Meanwhile, workers at the Scimitar Petroleum Company have been demanding overdue bonuses and the reinstatement of several sacked workers, along with better wages and working conditions.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to frighten or threaten the workers, the army deployed its APCs earlier this week inside and around the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla where nearly 20,000 workers are on strike demanding improved wages and overdue bonuses. Army officers have reportedly called on workers to end their strike and to move towards negotiations.

But in a context where the security apparatuses are mobilized against any protest movement in the wake of the current regime’s war on the Muslim Brotherhood, industrial actions are slammed as destabilizing and quelled. Moreover, the ruling regime has recently tried to associate them with what it deems a Brotherhood threat.

According to Fatma Ramadan of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), “these latest crackdowns are part of the security forces’ ongoing policy against industrial actions.” She explains that since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, the security apparatuses are “repeatedly attempting to criminalize workers’ strikes and protests and to portray striking workers as trouble-makers, counter-revolutionaries, hired-hands and provocateurs seeking to harm the economy.”

In relation to the current period following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in July, Ramadan adds, “The police are utilizing these exceptional laws as a pretext to crackdown on striking workers. Under these exceptional circumstances and this atmosphere of fear, striking workers are being labeled as terrorists or agents of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with other baseless accusations.”

Amr Youssef, a union organizer at the Suez Steel Company whom police arrested as he attempted to enter the factory gates on August 12, recounts that 14 workers have been threatened by both their employer and the security forces. “They’ve threatened to sack us from our jobs, while also claiming that we are Muslim Brotherhood supporters,” he explains.

“In our earlier protests, they had claimed that we were feloul (Mubarak loyalists), then they claimed we were communists seeking to destroy the company and destabilize the Egyptian economy. In reality we are non-affiliated workers. We are not feloul, communists or members of the Brotherhood,” he says

Youssef explains that a large contingent of security forces, including several police trucks and APCs, had been deployed outside the main entrance to the Suez Steel Company on August 12. Security forces identified Youssef, along with fellow unionist Rauf Abdel Khaleq, as they attempted to enter the company premises. They were both taken to the local police station, questioned, threatened and then released within a few hours.

“Several of our coworkers tried to follow the police truck carrying us away from the company, but security forces prevented them from doing so. A scuffle broke out, and the troops ended up breaking a worker’s arm and injuring two others,” he says.

 “Prior to these clashes, we were chanting for [Armed Forces General Commander Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi so as to show the security forces that we are not political opponents of the regime,” he adds.

“In its so-called ‘fight against terrorism,’ we advise the state not to scapegoat striking workers,” says Adel Zakariya of the independent Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services. He called on the ruling authorities to “prevent the exploitation of workers, and to respect their legitimate rights to protest and strike — as is stipulated in international conventions to which Egypt is signatory.”

But following these crackdowns against workers at the Suez Steel Company and the Scimitar Petroleum Company — along with several crackdowns against the Brotherhood — Sisi addressed the nation on August 18, speaking in defense of the ailing national economy and against work-stoppages. “We must seek to double our production,” he said.

Sisi also sought to associate labor protests with the Muslim Brotherhood: “Don’t give anyone the chance to interrupt your work. Let’s all work, let’s build our country and let’s move forward. This is what we need to do.”

Moreover, Sisi called on workers to take action against “instigators” of strikes. He added, “Tell those neighbors, please no more. If we can do this, we will effectively contribute to avoiding bloodshed and casualties. Moreover, we will help quell this sedition. And again, don’t let anybody interrupt production because this is another means of tearing the country down.”

However, Sisi did not mention the negative economic repercussions associated with his heavy-handed security crackdowns, curfews and emergency law.

Ramadan of the EFITU, explains that “the imposition of emergency law and curfews are clearly affecting labor rights, including the right to work, organize, and to strike, along with other rights.”

Similarly, Saud Omar, secretary of the Suez Regional Workers’ Federation asserts that “all exceptional laws harm workers’ rights and liberties. Curfews and emergency law may lead to even more punitive measures against workers, and further deterioration of labor freedoms.”

Three days after Sisi’s address, on August 21, security forces stormed and searched the homes of four workers from the Suez Steel Company who had been accused of instigating the strike. On the same day, unionist Mohamed Mabrouk was arrested at a security checkpoint and taken to the local police station where he was questioned and threatened.

Mabrouk who was detained for around 24 hours, says, “I was not physically harmed or abused at the hands of the police, but conditions in detention there are inhuman.”

Like his coworkers Youssef and Abdel Khaleq before him, Mabrouk was reportedly told to accept resignation from the company in return for monetary compensation.

“Police officers told us to return to work and stop obstructing production, or to accept our employer’s offer of LE150,000 (around US$2,146) to leave the company,” Youssef recounts. He adds that a senior officer at the police station said to him, “if a man is tired of his wife, he divorces her.”

Shortly after some 2,100 workers launched their strike on July 23, the Suez Steel Company’s Managing Director, Rafiq al-Dauw, filed complaints to prosecutors, security forces and local authorities against the 14 “strike instigators” whom he wants to sack.

According to Ramadan, “the Suez Steel workers had similarly filed complaints to local authorities against the company owners and administrators accusing them of breaching their labor rights, yet the workers’ complaints fell on deaf ears.”

Ramadan adds that “prosecutors ignored these workers’ demands, while the police and Armed Forces have again sided with the employers.  Mubarak’s old security apparatus is still in power, and thus they will continue to protect employers’ interests at the expense of workers’ rights.”

After a month-long strike, workers at the Suez Steel Company expressed their willingness to return to work on August 22 — yet indicated that they may re-launch their strike at any time if the employers refuse to meet their demands.

However, according to Zakariya, seven workers out of the 14 so-called instigators appear to be in the process of being sacked, while the remaining seven are being threatened with the same fate. Nevertheless, workers have been demanding their reinstatement.

Dauw could not be reached for comment; neither could the Scimitar Petroleum Company’s administrators or workers.

Meanwhile, at the Scimitar Company, operating by the Red Sea town of Ras Ghareb, the number of workers assaulted or detained during the crackdown on August 17 has not been confirmed. However, this crackdown did succeed in ending a three day work-stoppage from August 14-17. An unspecified number of striking workers at the company have reportedly been referred to prosecution.

While both the Suez and Scimitar companies have resumed operations following crackdowns — Scimitar went back to work on August 17 and the Suez Steel Company resumed production on August 22 — further protests and strikes at these companies may still be expected, however.

Ramadan says that she expects both industrial actions and security crackdowns to continue. “Hunger and social injustice will continue to fuel labor protests across the country. No amount of arrests, trials, crackdowns or exceptional laws will be able to end these labor actions.”

“Only an inclusive social dialogue with workers and their unions will be able to decrease labor unrest,” she says. “Until then, workers will continue to struggle for their rights, and for the demands of the revolution: Bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity.”

Jano Charbel 

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