In Egypt, fighting for a $50-a-month factory job

July 16, 2011 - 12:59 PM
An Eight Dollar Life

In this June 23, 2011 photo, Samiha Mohammed, 65, left, the mother of late Mariam Hawas and her granddaughter Iman Bayyoumi, 12 sit at the family house in Talkha, Mansoura, Egypt. awans lost her life trying to collect her monthly salary. Egyptians have long complained that the cheapest thing in this country is their lives. Under the former regime, wages in the public sector , the single largest employer , were miserably low and the already vast gap between rich and poor only widened. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

TALKHA, Egypt (AP) — The sun was already searing the pavement on the early June morning when Mariam Hawas and her co-workers from the garment factory descended on the bank.

The bank employees knew why they'd come and rushed to bolt the doors.

The roughly 100 workers, most of them women, were looking for unpaid back wages from the United Bank in the city of Mansoura, until recently the largest shareholder in their factory. Labor protests like this are sweeping across Egypt after the uprising in January, as workers scramble to right decades of economic injustice.

Hawas, a 44-year-old mother of three, was hoping to collect her monthly salary from April — 300 pounds ($50). But as the workers pounded on the doors, the bank employees responded with taunts from inside their air-conditioned offices.

"You can knock from now until next year," one jeered. "Go and block traffic in the streets if you want your rights," said another.

And so they did.

Traffic was snarled, temperatures and tempers were rising.

A truck driver climbed out to see what the commotion was about, and a frustrated policeman directing traffic goaded him on.

"Run them over. The blood money for each one is 50 pounds ($8)," the policeman said, according to several factory workers who witnessed the scene.

The driver climbed back into the cab of his truck. The engine revved, once, then a second time. On the third time, the truck lurched forward.

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Egyptians have long complained that the cheapest thing in this country is their lives.

Under the former regime, wages in the public sector — the single largest employer — were miserably low and the already vast gap between rich and poor only widened. The public sector minimum wage stood at about 300 pounds ($50) per month, including standard bonuses.

While the cost of living soared, unemployment spread like an incurable disease. The hundreds of thousands of new entrants into the job market far eclipsed the number of jobs created in this nation of 80 million.

Poverty was a key catalyst for the 18-day uprising earlier this year, which forced President Hosni Mubarak out and raised hopes for improved working conditions. The success of the protesters emboldened millions of workers to seek better pay, and fast — perhaps faster than the country's embattled economy can accommodate, say some officials and businessmen.

For workers, the changes since Mubarak's ouster on Feb. 11 are coming far too slowly.

"A worker who earns 189 pounds ($31) a month is not going to go home and tell his children: 'Wait six months for elections,'" said prominent Egyptian labor activist Hossam el-Hamalawy. "There is a feeling that if we don't get it now, we may never have a chance."

Sporadic strikes became daily events. They spread to the banking, public transportation, textile, construction and medical industries. Workers for the vital Suez Canal, one of Egypt's main foreign currency earners, joined in the strikes.

Employees confronted their bosses, sometimes violently, challenging large inequalities of pay, poor working conditions, a lack of job security and benefits, and even managers' ties to the ousted ruling party and the old regime.

"This is first of all an enormous social movement, the likes of which Egypt and the rest of the Arab world have not seen for a very long time," said Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University who has long studied Egypt's labor problems. "The fact it is being sustained and advanced is, in and of itself, an achievement."

There has been modest progress. A longtime demand for a raise in the minimum wage has gone into effect, doubling it to 700 pounds ($118) a month for public sector workers. Most agree it is still paltry.

More than 30 new independent trade unions have been set up, which was essentially illegal under Mubarak's regime. But the unions are largely toothless.

"This was supposed to be a new era," said Mohsen el-Sha'er, a trade unionist at the garment factory, one of roughly half a dozen labor organizers fired for what management said was inciting unrest. "But here we were, still fighting for the same thing we'd been fighting for before."

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The story of Hawas and the workers at the Mansoura Espana factory reflects the struggle of millions of workers for economic justice under Mubarak's regime, and how little has changed since the regime fell. The Associated Press pieced together the events from more than a half-dozen interviews with factory workers, relatives, witnesses, bank officials and a lawyer for one of the workers, as well as police, prosecutor, forensic and medical reports.

Mansoura Espana was set up in the early 1980s in the Nile Delta, producing ready-to-wear garments for the local and international market. It was located in Talkha, a city of 1 million neighboring the provincial capital of Mansoura and encircled by some of Egypt's most fertile land.

But urban encroachment is slowly eating away at tens of thousands of acres of agricultural land, worked largely by peasant farmers. Red brick buildings are sprouting in the place of crops, with exposed steel girdings rising from the roofs to make way for added floors.

The development has made land prices in the Nile Delta at least rival those in the capital, Cairo, about a three hours' drive to the south.

By 2006, factory workers said, the owners of Mansoura Espana wanted to sell, knowing that the real estate alone would bring in more money than the company could generate. A buyer was reportedly looking at the land to expand the campus of a private university nearby.

The factory was losing money every year, and the owners delayed paying salaries and government-mandated bonuses. The workers saw this as a management strategy to whittle down the work force, and pushed back.

In 2006, they held a three-day strike that won them six months of pay through a government emergency fund.

About a year later, they embarked on a 64-day sit-in on the factory floor. For two months, men and women slept under the same roof, defying strict social taboos. Deeply religious husbands made the trip to the plant daily to bring food for their wives in a show of support.

"The factory was a small Tahrir Square," Abdel-Fattah Hawas, Mariam Hawas' uncle, said in homage to the epicenter of the national uprising.

Hawas was one of the workers who camped out.

"I told her not to leave until she got her rights," said her husband, Bayoumi Abdel-Latif Bayoumi.

The sit-in ended when officials promised to pay bonuses for 2007. But no sooner than one strike was settled, another began — almost monthly for the next three years.

From a business standpoint, this was a company that should never have been, said Ali el-Hosary, the banker who got saddled with the troubled factory.

El-Hosary came on board at United when it was set up in 2006 from the merger of three public sector banks with a massive portfolio of non-performing loans and investments. That portfolio totaled 6.4 billion pounds ($1.1 billion) and included Mansoura Espana.

"What was the bank's administration going to do?" he asked. "We essentially inherited a pile of garbage. But we had to wake up the dead, and Mansoura Espana was among the dead."

From day one, it was clear that wasn't going to happen.

The company's debts were five times higher than the roughly $500,000 the company started with in capital, and the management was incompetent, el-Hosary said. There was no system to track operating expenses. The workers were poorly trained and inefficient, he maintained, and the machinery was inadequate.

"They bought a bunch of sewing machines like you'd have at home," he scoffed. "How are you going to compete with Asian nations ... with that kind of equipment?"

Selling Mansoura Espana was just good business, and in any case, the bank was required to unload toxic assets by law. In November 2010, after repeated delays, a deal was completed with an Egyptian investment and development firm.

All along, el-Hosary clashed with the striking workers. Once they held him hostage for five hours during a protest. Seven court verdicts were handed down against him, with sentences ranging from six months to a year, after workers filed claims over unpaid benefits.

El-Hosary described the garment factory employees as "exactly the same as someone who comes out at you at night and demands everything that's in your pocket."

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After working at the factory for 24 years, Hawas earned about $1.40 a day, or $50 a month. It was hardly a living wage, although not unusual in a country where the World Bank estimates that more than 40 percent of the population lives near or under the poverty line of $2 a day.

Her husband, a school administrator who moonlights at a pharmacy, brought in about $190 a month. Their combined income, assuming Hawas actually got paid, was never enough to cover their expenses.

The couple shared a two-bedroom apartment with their three children in a working-class neighborhood where laundry hangs outside the buildings and streets are wide enough for a single car to pass. Sagging electrical wires crisscross above the alleys in a tangled web.

The walls around the neighborhood are scrawled with religious graffiti. One slogan says: "My headscarf is my shield in this world, my way to heaven, my savior from hell."

Rent alone ate up a third of Hawas' family income. Almost all the rest went to the $165 a month they paid for private tutoring for their children, a standard for Egyptian households because of the shoddy education system. Then there was food and transportation — just getting to and from work cost Hawas 40 cents every day.

She was a quiet, devout woman who fasted from dawn to dusk four months out of the year instead of the traditional one month. But she came home depressed and angry most days, according to her husband, dragged down by the oppressive conditions at work.

As the years passed, management extended workers' hours to nearly 12 a day, they said. Overtime was calculated at 10 piasters, about a penny, an hour. Friday remained an official holiday, but workers said they were told they would be fired if they didn't show up. They were promised 35 cents for that day of work, but the extra money, like the basic salary, often went unpaid, along with all bonuses from 2007 through 2011.

Over the years, the minister of manpower intervened, as did the central bank governor. But in Mubarak's Egypt, assurances that were extended with one hand were brushed aside with the other.

June 7 began like almost every other day. Hawas woke before sunrise to offer a simple prayer: "We rely on God." Then she made breakfast for her family.

Hawas headed out of her apartment, her hair tucked under a headscarf, and hopped on a minibus for the short ride to the factory. She punched her time card and joined about 100 colleagues in a fleet of taxis and minibuses that shuttled them from Talkha to the United Bank in nearby Mansoura.

The mood on the short drive was subdued, the workers determined. They decided to draw as much attention as they could in front of the bank, and tried to close off one side of the street.

"There were people who stopped and supported us," said 28-year-old Samah Eissa, one of the protesting workers. "We were telling them how we weren't getting paid."

But traffic was building up and horns — the soundtrack of Egypt's roads — began to blare.

Hawas turned to Eissa, who was standing near her, and said: "We'll get our rights."

Not long after that, the truck rammed into both of them.

Eissa was dragged under it for about 50 yards before the driver stopped. Her right ear was shorn off, and two fingers on her right hand were broken. The friction from the tarmac shredded the skin on her back and shoulders.

By the time Hawas reached the hospital, she was dead.

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In the reception room of her family's home, Eissa sits on a couch, the bandages on her head poking out from under a black-and-white flowered headscarf. Her face is swollen, her right eye is bloodshot red and her left eye is black. Two fingers on the right hand are bandaged together.

Surgeons spent about nine hours trying to stitch her ear back on, but failed. And she will need skin grafts in a future that her brother, Abdel-Aziz Eissa, fears may not include marriage.

"When she brushes her hair every day and looks in the mirror, what hope does she have?" he asks.

She used to earn 250 pounds ($42) a month at the factory, where she ironed clothes. Now nothing matters to her except justice, she says, especially when she remembers the price that the traffic policeman put on each of the worker's lives.

"How can a life be worth 50 pounds ($8)?" she wonders. "I don't see a future until I get my rights. That's what I want."

Hawas' family wants the same thing.

The truck driver is facing trial on charges of wrongful death and injury, according to Eissa's lawyer, Taha Kawoud. After about a month in prison, he was recently released without bail. A court date is set for late July.

The traffic policeman has not been tracked down, according to both women's families and several workers.

The anger and frustration was palpable among Hawas' relatives when they gathered in her parents' modest home a couple of weeks after her death. The women sat in an outside reception room, with an old radio piping out scratchy chants of Quranic verses, while the men sat in another room and fumed.

Someone brought out a recent passport photo of Hawas. She is smiling, pretty, with shiny brown eyes and hair covered in a pale gray headscarf.

Her 16-year-old daughter Fatmah Bayoumi gazes at the floor, out of grief or shyness or both. A studious-looking teenager with thick, square glasses, dressed in a long black robe and headscarf, she is on the verge of tears as she talks about her mother.

"Sometimes, we look up at the clock at the time she is supposed to come home and that's when we feel her absence," she says. "We did everything together."

On June 17, 10 days after Hawas' death, the workers were paid their back wages for April. The bank also doled out about $62,000 for buyouts ranging from $1,650 to $23,200 for each worker. On average, the workers say, they were offered 2½ months severance pay for every year of service.

But court verdicts awarded to workers who filed suit have not been honored, according to Hussein Fahim, a worker and witness to Hawas' death who filed suit himself. And neither Hawas' nor Eissa's families have received compensation for what happened.

Work at the plant has largely stopped, the employees say. The sewing machines are idle.

"Mariam's death was a weight on us all," says Aida No'man, Hawas' friend and colleague. "No one wants to go to the factory."

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Associated Press writer Ali Gomaa contributed to this report.