Yet another trip to Egypt's Delta this week, this time to Shibeen El-Koum, in Menufeya – birth place of Mubarak but otherwise lovely.
Workers at the Indorama – formerly Shibeen El-Koum - spinning factory have been on strike since 5th March, after company chairman announced that workers won't be getting the annual raise given them every year in March because the company isn't making any profits.
The company was privatised in 2006, and had already been making a loss prior to its sell-off. As usual, blame for the losses is attributed to the other party by workers and management. In Shibeen, workers showed Per Bjorklund and I round the shell of a factory halls. A worker pointed to the place where machines had once stood, his voice bouncing around the hall's empty walls like a squash ball as he explained that management has sold functioning machines only to replace them with new ones which were then sold for scrap.
The current strike is the 95th to have taken place since the company was privatised. There is something broken in the relationship between workers and management, a deep sense of having being betrayed on the part of workers which, in its crudest form, manifests itself in a suspicion of the Indian administrative employees and technicians. They accuse the Indian staff of granting themselves powers beyond their job description and treating them in an imperious manner. The resentment is exacerbated by the knowledge that Indian workers are paid an undisclosed amount in dollars, and are provided with free accommodation and cars while the company buses used to transport workers are left to rot.
By far the most revealing conversation I had about Shibeen – and about class relations in Egypt generally - was with a member of Indorama's management.
The company chairman had told me that he was too busy to speak to me but that his administrative manager would telephone me. I concluded that this was a brush-off, and decided to invite myself to their office. The administrative manager did in fact call me while I was on the way, announcing himself as 'Colonel' Emad, and demanding to know who I am and what I want in the breathy, impatient tone which is the signature of senior Egyptian police officers. When I cheerfully told him that I was on the way to the office without an appointment he then reprimanded me about my manners.
Per Bjorklund and I were admitted to the Colonel's office soon after arriving and discovered a man in a moustache and Italian loafers. The office, which was surprisingly small for a colonel, was dominated by his desk which, in addition to various bric-a-brac, had a writing pad with three small clocks on it, like a ship's deck. His filing cabinet were decorated with several stickers of F-16 jets, while the Colonel himself was drinking out of a travel mug with another picture of a plane emblazoned on it and the name of a manufacturer of something or other in Detroit.
A natural yogurt and a spoon stood incongruously amongst all the armaments.
We asked the Colonel why Shibeen El-Koum is making a loss and why Indorama bought it in the first place, amongst other questions. He blamed everything – in that insistent whisper - without exception, on the workers. This is a selection of some of the gems he came out with, lifted directly from my article:
As for the issue at the center of the strike, Abdel Khaliq says that despite assertions to the contrary from the Minister of Manpower herself, Indorama is not obliged to pay the yearly bonus because it is making a loss. “If you were making the loss, how would you pay?” he asked.
Abdel Khaliq says that the strike is being conducted illegally.
“Work, and let the trade union committee ask for your rights. Prove that you are productive rather than putting a blanket out on the street and saying that you’re not going to work — that’s the law of the jungle. How can you ask me for more money when you don’t want to work?”
Abdel Khaliq claims that workers’ wages have been doubled despite the losses the company is suffering — a claim which Shalaby denies.
And why is the company making a loss? Abdel Khaliq says that the problem is simple: workers don’t want to work.
“In the past Shibeen El-Koum was famous all over the world; someone taking it over while it was making a loss was bound to turn it around with this reputation. Why? Because of the quality. It has the best yarn in the world. Since we took over it’s become the worst. Why? Because the workers don’t want to work. They say that the government sold them out,” Abdel Khaliq said.
“Why don’t they work like they did while the factory was government-owned? Because the government has a whip — if a worker did anything a call was made to the police and they came and took him.
“The private sector meanwhile is chaos. We sent yarn to Spain and it was returned because it was of such poor quality. Who made this yarn which sells for a fourth of what it should sell for? Is it not the worker? If it’s bad quality why’s isn’t he doing anything about it?”
Abdel Khaliq claims that striking workers are “just hanging out” and that “only 10 percent” of workers are actually involved in the strike.
“Workers still think that they’re working in the government sector: all they say is ‘give me’. We’ve doubled wages and tripled the food allowance.
Why aren’t they happy? Because of their culture. Freedom without culture results in thuggery.”
I've always found this paternalistic attitude to the “great unwashed” who shouldn't be given the sharp knife of autonomy in case they cut themselves or others, repellent. It is particularly galling when it comes from a man with F-16 jets on his filing cabinets who has almost certainly been employed because of his connections with security bodies whose job it is to quash workers exercising any form of autonomy (he told us that he was previously employed in the army).
These comments aside, the Colonel was able to counter a few of the allegations made by workers with semi-convincing responses, and I left his office confused by the knot of the back and forth of the various allegations.
Luckily, Per did some good thinking here. I agree with him that, “the worst accusations and suspicions put forward by some of the workers doesn't necessarily have to be true. A company can make losses without any conspiracies being involved, of course. In the end, it's just about who is going to pay - the capitalists or the workers.”