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Egypt labor strikes point to desperate conditions

Discontent is mounting, but the Mubarak government has managed to stave off an uprising by raising some salaries, making a series of promises and relying on the intimidation of a police state.

August 17, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman

SUEZ, EGYPT — His hair thinning and his days long, Shazly Sawy is Egypt's everyman.

"I'm the oldest worker in my factory," said the 36-year-old father with a raisin-brown callus on his forehead from years of prostrating in prayer. "I make 900 pounds [$163] a month. My rent is 500 pounds. I have medical and family bills. That eats my paycheck. The only way I can survive is borrowing money from my father."

Sawy led a recent strike of fertilizer workers who camped for 20 days at a factory mosque in Suez before police pressure and promises from management ended the standoff. The promises turned out to be empty, but the strike was another dramatic sign that millions of underpaid, angry workers in public offices and state-owned companies are testing the government of President Hosni Mubarak.

"It's good that a lot of strikes are going on across the country. There's a greater feeling among workers to reach out to one another," said Seoud Omar, a labor activist in Suez. "They realize they need to unite, and that mood didn't exist five or six years ago."

It seems every day quarrymen, doctors, train conductors, law clerks, pharmacists and others are protesting or marching in picket lines. A government that has stifled political opponents has yet to appease workers who complain that businessmen and lawmakers connected to the ruling National Democratic Party are the only ones thriving in Egypt these days.

Hundreds of labor strikes have been called since 2006, when textile workers and police clashed in the city of El Mahalla el Kubra. The ripple has spread across economic classes as Mubarak, whose privatization programs have led to economic growth, has been unable to stem inflation and huge public debt to improve the lives of most Egyptians.

Although analysts have compared the atmosphere to the unrest leading to the 1919 Egyptian rebellion against British colonial rule, the Mubarak government has prevented a national uprising by raising some salaries, promising to increase others and relying on the intimidation of a police state. Workers also accuse the ruling party of manipulating unions to protect corporations instead of the rank and file.

"I think they want to keep us low-paid and struggling in our personal lives so we don't have time for politics or how to make things better," said Kamal Banna, whom police threatened to arrest for conspiracy if he, Sawy and others didn't end the strike at the state-controlled Suez Fertilizer Co.

A company spokesman, who asked not to be named, said the workers' demands were groundless: "They are getting their salaries on time, they are granted a considerable number of social and medical privileges," he said. "The workers ended the strike after they realized that they were asking for too much."

After his night shift the other day, Sawy filed out of the plant and into a morning glazed with grit and yellow haze from factories and cliffs lining the coast just south of the Suez Canal. Freighters crawled in the distance. He and other workers said when they were hired in 2004 they knew the air would be foul, the pay low. They were told to be patient; salaries would rise and conditions improve. The men breathe phosphates, ammonia and other toxins six days a week. One died in a machine accident. Five were informed by doctors that exposure to chemicals has left them sterile.

A strike in 2007 resulted in an average $36-a-month raise, but wages remained well below those paid at privately owned companies. Last month, workers struck again, sleeping and eating in the factory until they were threatened with arrest. The men relented, but the strike, one of 35 labor stoppages nationwide involving 16,500 workers in the last two weeks of July, brought them notoriety and support from groups such as Solidarity, a national organization of labor activists.

"We've realized that any improvement to the country's deteriorating social and financial climate can only come through workers and farmers, not through the political elite or businessmen," said Fatma Ramadan, a Solidarity member. "Our group is determined to organize workers throughout Egypt."

Mohammed Gharieb, who works with Sawy, sat under a ceiling fan in a cafe where the men gather to unwind. Gharieb held up a mask, saying it did little to protect him from fumes. The other men nodded and the conversation meandered from factory conditions to unpaid bills to moonlighting jobs.

"I can't afford to get married," he said. "All the money I make I spend to survive. It would take me 10 years to save what I'd need to get married."

Ahmed Amin heads to a grocery job after his shift. His parents are dead and he's supporting his younger sister. He's taken a bank loan to pay for her dowry, but doesn't know how he'll pay it back. "I have no vision of a future," he said. "I just get by."

Banna wondered what will come of all the unrest: "Every day there's a strike somewhere in Egypt," he said, "but so far nothing has changed."

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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