CAIRO: State-controlled General Trade Union of Textile Workers (GTUTW) announced its support to the five-day strike organized by Tanta Flax and Oil Company workers.
The strike is scheduled to start on May 31.
This is the first time that a general union – which forms part of the state-controlled Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions (EFTU) – has agreed to a strike.
Labor activists say that GTUTW’s decision indicates EFTU’s awareness “that its existence is under threat.
This strike forms part of a series of industrial protests staged by workers who say that pay and conditions have deteriorated sharply since the company’s February 2005 purchase by a Saudi investor.
Workers allege that the company has not given workers an annual raise to the value of 7 percent of workers’ basic wage since July 1 2008 – as it is legally obliged to do – despite the fact that it registered profits in its accounts. Workers say that the company hasn’t shared profits with them since 2005.
In addition, workers allege that an incentive payment they receive is assessed on the basis of wages as they stood in July 2004 rather than current wage level. Furthermore, workers say, the company has not increased workers’ meal allowance from LE 32 per month to LE 90 in equality with other companies in the sector.
In addition to these demands workers are calling for the reinstatement of nine workers, including two union members, who were dismissed in October 2007 and July 2008. Court verdicts have held that the dismissal of some of these workers was unfair.
While acknowledging that the agreement of the GTUTW to the strike is “unprecedented, head of the Committee for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS) Kamal Abbas had reservations about the legality of the declaration.
“The strike was declared by the Tanta Company’s union committee. Union committees have no legal personality under the law; the strike should have been announced by the CTUWS directly, Abbas, who is in favor of the strike action, told Daily News Egypt.
“This is a problem because, if it wanted to, the government could hold that the strike is illegal and raise charges against the union committee under Article 124 of the Penal Code, Abbas continued.
Abbas pointed to the 15-day detention order issued against a postal worker in Ismailia on Sunday as evidence of this.
Mahmoud Faza’a was detained after sending a fax to his manager threatening that workers will strike if temporary postal workers are not made permanent.
“Faza’a was agitating for a strike, or threatening that if the government didn’t do certain things postal workers will strike. That’s not an announcement of a strike or anything and yet he was detained for 15 days under [Article 124], Abbas said.
“If [GTUTW] head Said El-Gohary wants to announce a strike he should do so in the correct legal manner by issuing an announcement signed by the CTUWS head and addressed to the company concerned.
Labor lawyer Haitham Mohamedein disagreed with this analysis.
He said that the Tanta Company’s union committee had followed the correct procedures under Article 192 of the Labor Law, according to which strikes decided upon by union committee must have the backing of the general union to which the union committee belongs.
Mohamedein pointed to a letter sent by GTUTW head El-Gohary to the Tanta Company union committee as evidence of this. The letter makes reference to the union committee’s “repeated demands . to no avail for workers’ rights, and informs them that the GTUTW voted in favor of the strike during a meeting held on April 29, 2009.
Despite his misgivings about the legitimacy of the strike’s declaration, Abbas said that GTUTW “supported the decision because general unions are playing the role they should be playing.
Abbas suggested that GTUTW’s stance on the Tanta Company dispute reflects an awareness on EFTU’s part that its existence is under threat.
He noted that throughout the half a century of its existence, EFTU policy has mirrored that of the government’s.
“When the government used to use violence against strikes as happened in the 1980s and 1990s . EFTU and general unions used to condemn striking workers. Now that the government has stopped using violence, EFTU is trying to cloak itself in the role of the hero defending workers’ rights, Abbas said.
“The GTUTW hasn’t mentioned anything about its negotiations with the Tanta Company’s management . Rather, it has simply adopted the workers’ position because of EFTU’s isolation [from workers]. These situations occur because EFTU has really started to become aware of its own alienation, not only from labor leaders but in Egyptian society as a whole. This is a result of its complete submission to, and defense of, the government’s position.
Mohamedain agreed with this, noting that during a meeting held last week at the EFTU headquarters, general union leaders were told to support “small-scale workers’ protests.
“EFTU started to feel that its existence is under threat with the establishment of the independent Union of Real Estate Tax Collectors [in April] and the calls made in other sectors for independent unions, Mohamedain explained.
“As a result EFTU has changed its policy and has instructed general unions to support small-scale industrial action. This policy does not however extend to strikes in vital sectors nor in large companies such as the Ghazl El-Mahalla spinning company.
The Ghazl El-Mahalla factory in Mahalla is a hotbed of industrial action. Its December 2006 strike is credited with launching a wave of strikes and industrial action.
Activist group the Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Union and Workers’ Rights and Freedoms condemned the “arbitrary punitive action taken against labor activists amongst its workforce in a statement issued on Saturday.
Five activist workers were transferred last year from the company’s main factory to other branches in Alexandria and Cairo, and one of the transferred workers, Karim El-Beheiry was dismissed last week.
The statement condemns EFTU’s ignoring of appeals for intervention sent to it by the workers.