I went to a sit-in today in downtown Cairo by workers from the Tanta Flax and Oils Company. About 350 men have been sleeping on the pavement there since Monday, in the cold, because they’d like to be able to feed their families, and sometimes wages don’t come without a fight. It’s the usual story: public sector company is privatized and sold off. Investor buys it (at a huge discount) and then proceeds to slowly and systematically dismantle it with a view to selling the land on which the factory stands and making a tidy profit.
The only problem is that new investors are contractually under an obligation to “protect” the workers who come as part of the package, which means that they can’t just sack them, shut up shop and walk happily into the sunset, pockets bulging. One common strategy is to force workers out on early retirement, another to make life as intolerable as possible (especially for those active in defending workers’ rights) in the hope that they will quit of their own accord. The results are invariably a reduced, and demoralized workforce.
While Egypt’s steady privatization has made it a star pupil with the World Bank, these policies are far from popular amongst the people they most directly affect, as it well known. I spoke to one worker today who told me that he had the option of joining a private firm but opted for Tanta (when it was still government-owned) “because the state protects me in a way private companies won’t”. Tanta workers are not the first formerly public sector workers I have spoken to who reject the idea that the government doesn’t owe them anything after the integration of their company into the private sector. In fact, several such workers I spoke to continued to refer to themselves as public sector employees.
I’m poorly equipped to discuss with authority the economic merits or otherwise of Egypt’s privatization process, but its effects as I have witnessed them have largely been extremely negative. And certainly the trickle-down benefits lauded by the architects of this process has yet to be felt amongst the majority of Egyptians. But I really understood as I spoke to workers today that the privatization process is an affront to some workers not merely because it (usually) impoverishes them and threatens their working futures. On an ideological level, men in their 40s, 50s and 60s are bearing witness to the tearing down of the last remaining vestiges of a legacy which has informed their whole lives; the idea that the state will protect them. Privatisation of these men’s factories is a multi-pronged attack. On their security, their livelihoods, sometimes their pride and always the belief system which has underpinned their whole existence.
Times and economies change and that’s life, some argue. There are always victims on the road to progress. Alas these victims are often steamrollered multiples times by this progress. Tanta workers have been battling for almost a year for basic entitlements. What they want now is either for their factory to work properly (raw supplies aren’t being renewed and machinery is being removed, they say preventing them from working) or for them to be made redundant with the severance pay they are legally entitled to. The company is doing neither.
It has offered them half of the sum workers believe they are entitled to as redundancy pay. Workers have recently been informed that they won’t be being paid January’s salaries because they haven’t been working (they were on strike). Yesterday, as workers were thinking about putting up a tent to shelter them from the cold security officers stormed their gathering attacking four workers in an attempt to get to activists from the Tadamon [Solidarity] group who have been supporting the workers. You can see a video of the arrest of the activists here. They were subsequently released shortly afterwards.
I went back the same evening and workers told me that they're not intimidated. But they also said that this is because this protest is their resort: there's nothing else they can do after this, and how can they go back to their families and the factory and Tanta having failed?
I had left the sit-in shortly before the attack happened, and encountered another of Egypt’s odd moments of irony. As I walked away, wondering whether Egypt’s government is in professional training for the Screwing Over Your Own People Olympics or just doing it for fun, I walked onto Qasr El-Eini and found it empty. Big men in suits and shades carrying machine guns in 4x4s were parked on the side of the road, waiting to escort out parliamentarians. Behind them a sea of cars, ordinary Egyptians, were being held up. Without wishing to labour the image – you get the idea – walking along, the workers’ chants still audible behind me, it felt like yet another huge Up Yours from the men in charge.