Cotton and Revolution: Is the Government Afraid of Mahalla’s Workers?

Workers in Mahalla returned to their posts on Sunday after a ten day strike demanding the provision of their yearly bonus which was denied to them having been promised last year. Thousands of united members of the workforce at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company swore to resume their protest unless ministers conceded to their demands within the 48 hours following their return. During their ten day protest, in which they also demanded the reinstatement of suspended workers, the employees were unsuccessfully cajoled by the labour minister, Gamal Sorour, to retreat to their posts before agreements were made between the two parties. He also warned ‘that legal measures would be taken against any of those attempting to obstruct work’.

Mahalla, 2008 - James Buck
Mahalla, 2008 – James Buck

According to the estimations of Ahmed Mostafa, Chairman of the Cotton and Textile Industries Holding Company, their recent actions led to an approximate loss of 40 million EGP. Strike action therefore forced the investment minister, Ashraf Salman, to deliver a written guarantee that the workers would receive the 10% bonus of their wage, promised to them by President Sisi in 2014.

"Manually decontaminating cotton before processing at an Indian spinning mill (2010)"
“Manually decontaminating cotton before processing at an Indian spinning mill (2010)”

Whilst this particular case may have resolved itself thus far, the protests in Mahalla have a wider context and a disproportionate level of influence on people politics such as the 2011 revolution, and Egypt’s social and labour movements. In order to understand how factory workers are able to force the political elite to agree to certain demands, one must understand the industry’s past. Located in the middle of the Nile Delta north of Cairo, El-Mahalla El Kubra is a large industrial and agricultural city with a textile industry almost a century old. Mahalla is home to the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, a publicly owned textile corporation which employs over 25,000 workers. This culturally and historically significant industry was founded in collaboration with Talaat Harb in 1927, and financially buoyed by the Misr Bank established during the uprising of 1920 – a bank responsible for funding patriotic Egyptian business ventures at the time.

In the 1960s, President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the industry and diversified its produce. Cotton fabrics were once Egypt’s second largest export after crude oil. Six years after his death, the industry was later bolstered by a US loan. Mubarak’s appointment as President resulted in continual efforts to privatise the entire industry which were impeded by strike action from Misr Helwan, and Misr Fine Spinning and Weaving Company. The industry has a long history of independently organised union action, granting them eight hour workdays in 1948. Although strikes were suppressed under Nasser, wages rose until their decline during the capitalist revolution that took hold at the time of Sadat’s rule. The textile workers of Mahalla are no strangers to an opposing establishment. The industry no longer hold key position as a primary exporter, but remains a source of national pride, the symbol of a strong workers union, and Egyptian resistance.

The national minimum wage was increased under President Sisi to 1,200 EGP per month ($149), however, it was initially set to include all bonuses and pay rises as a total income figure. Once more, not all public sector workers were entitled this amount. Considering inflation since demands for a raise to 1,200 EGP were first made twelve years ago, it is questionable as to whether this was a genuinely progressive response to the demands of the revolution “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.”

Cover image: “King Fouad I of Egypt sitting inside a ceremonial tent set up in the Cotton Spinning and Weaving Company at Mahalla, listening to a speech by Talaat Harb.”

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