Massive struggles in Egypt and Bangladesh

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Last December there was a wave of strikes and other protests across Egypt (see WR 302 , 304) which resulted in the government conceding annual bonuses equivalent to 45 days wages. However, this did not put a lid on workers' struggles, which have continued ever since. Toward the end of September 27,000 workers struck at Misr Helwan Spinning and Weaving Company's factory in Mahalla al-Kubra, with several thousand staging a six-day sit-in in a takeover of the textile factory. It's one of the biggest in Egypt, owned by the state and at the heart of last year's movement. Workers said that the government had gone back on its agreement, also demanding higher wages and the firing of top managers. Initial reports appear to indicate that all the workers' demands were met.

It seems that the government was concerned that the struggle would have the same impact as last year and spread to workers in other low-paid industries. Voice of America (27/9/7) reported that "The wildcat strikes have been far larger than any protest organized by the political opposition groups because the workers' movements have more grassroots support than any of Egypt's political parties or activist groups."

And although the police and army were mobilised it's not the same thing to confront thousands of workers as it is to deal with a modest demonstration by the political ‘opposition'.

The ruling class in Egypt is also concerned that workers have rejected the government-approved unions. When representatives from the ‘official' unions came to the factory workers chased them away and beat up the leader of the official Factory Union Committee. The strikes have been organised by workers independent of the state unions. The government has tried to combat this, for example, in April by closing the offices of a group that gave advice to workers and unofficial unions.

But the movement was not curtailed. Earlier this year there were strikes involving tens of thousands of workers at other textile factories, at two cement factories, and among poultry workers. Workers on the railway blocked the Alexandria-Cairo line and were supported in a go-slow by metro drivers in Cairo. There have been hundreds of smaller-scale actions by workers, including a sit-in by workers at a major post office in Cairo and strikes by rubbish collectors, bakers, Suez Canal employees, dockers, local council and hospital workers. According to one source there were about 220, mostly wildcat, strikes in Egypt in 2006. This year shows every sign of exceeding that figure.

The reason that workers are struggling is that, despite the supposed health of the Egyptian economy, workers have not felt any benefits. In particular, inflation is stated to be anything from 8 to 15 percent, but a government report issued during September said the cost of basic foodstuffs had risen 48 percent during the previous year. It is this, and consistently high levels of unemployment, that lie behind workers' struggles. And the ruling class knows it. At a recent conference in Cairo the Finance Minister admitted that it wasn't obvious how economic growth could benefit the poor, saying "It is a basic challenge that keeps me awake at night because I do not know how to handle it,"

And the development of an open class struggle is likely to cause even more sleepless nights to the ruling class. At the time of writing, the concessions made to the Mahalla workers, far from preventing the movement from spreading, have encouraged other workers to enter the struggle: at the Tanta Linseed and Oil factory, striking workers' demands were also quickly met and government officials were rushing to deal with another strike at Damietta Spinning and Weaving. And most importantly, the Egyptian working class is the biggest in the Middle East and its struggles have the potential to inspire workers throughout the region and the rest of the world.

Bangladesh: workers battle with police and troops

Bangladesh is another country where the class struggle has been sustained during the last year. Back in January there was a whole series of general strikes and unrest. An interim government backed by the army was installed, headed by the former head of the central bank Fakhruddin Ahmed. It imposed a state of emergency, but has not succeeded in containing workers' struggles, despite frequently resorting to violence.

Back in May for example at FS Sweaters Ltd in Gazipur, just north of Dhaka, at least one person died and more than 80 were injured when police fired on garment workers. They were on an unofficial strike not only for a wage rise but also for the release of two of their comrades who had been imprisoned. It was after a demonstration when workers put up a barricade across the road that the police made their first baton-charge. Workers retaliated by throwing stones and then the police started throwing tear gas canisters and firing live bullets which hit a dozen people.

More recently, in mid September, during a strike involving factories throughout the Dhaka Export Processing Zone in Savar, there were running battles between police and workers with more than 100 people injured. Starting with several hundred workers from Featherlight Ltd (part of the Ready Made Garment sector - RMG) workers from many other factories joined them in a protest demonstration, which was then baton-charged by the police, leaving many workers injured. Workers responded by barricading the road, damaging a number of factories and vandalising a number of vehicles. After a long period of fighting with the police workers were finally dispersed by a large-scale tear gas attack by the police.

Attacking factories is common in Bangladesh. Last year for example rioting at RMG plants in and around Dhaka over an eight week period left 400 factories damaged. There's a lesson to be learnt in the approach of workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla al-Kubra. When they were accused of damaging property two Daily News Egypt journalists were taken inside the occupied factory to show that the machinery was all in working order. One worker was quoted as saying "We are not sabotaging this factory. We are guarding these machines. This is our factory. This is where we make our living. We understand that." The destruction of factories can't help the class struggle.

In mid September in the Khalishpur industrial belt, Khulna, south-west Bangladesh striking workers at Platinum Jubilee Jute Mills attacked union leaders. They accused them of conspiring and conniving with management against workers' demands. 5000 workers had been on strike for nearly a fortnight, and were increasingly unhappy with the behaviour of the unions. On the morning of 16 September union officials had to be protected from angry workers when they arrived at the factory gates. Workers went to the house of the general secretary of the mill's trade union and ransacked his house. Later they met the union president and beat him up.

Again, these expressions of rage are perfectly understandable and do express an incipient grasp of the anti-working class role played by the unions, but beating up one or two union officials won't solve the problem of how to cut through the obstacles posed by unions as institutions tied to the bourgeois state.

A week after these events there were further clashes between garment workers and police that brought 25,000 workers on to the streets of Dhaka in a militant demonstration that was held despite a government ban on protests and rallies. More factories were damaged, buses burnt and roads blocked. It should be added that, with the prospect of further struggles in this area, the RMG sector has a 90% female workforce, rather undermining the stereotype of the passive Asian woman.

The struggles are likely to continue, in the face of rising inflation, working conditions often enforced with violence, and long periods of unpaid wages. The Bangladeshi economy is affected by frequent cyclones and flooding which increase its instability. In this fragile economy the jute and garment sectors are not only the most important industries, they have also been the setting for the most widespread workers' militancy. Car 2/10/7


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