TALKHA, Egypt — 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.
Where life is cheap
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.”
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 workforce, 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.”
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.