12 March, 2009

The blame game: class struggle in Shebeen el-Kom

There are so many sides to the Shebeen al-Kom strike that it is hard to know where to begin an analysis of it. But the basic conflict is simple enough: The company is making losses and workers and management is involved in a struggle about who is to bear the brunt of the cost. This conflict is made more explosive by the complicated wage system employed in Egypt, where various bonuses and allowances make up more then half of the salary for many workers. This creates a lot of room for arbitrary decisions and generates constant struggles (I dare say that at least 90% of all strikes in Egypt in recent years have been about various bonuses and incentives).

In order to back up their respective claims, the workers and managers in Shebeen el-Kom is involved in a blame game where each side is trying to portray the other as responsible for the losses. Workers accuse the owner of completely mismanaging the company, either as a result of incompetence, or deliberately in order to transfer resources abroad and destroy a competitor to his factories in other countries. Managers, in turn, accuse the workers of sabotaging the production - against their own interests - because they are lazy and lack "culture."

The idea that the workers have been sabotaging the production is very hard to believe. As one of the striking workers told me on Tuesday: "This factory is what keeps our families alive. It puts food on our table. They say the strike is illegal and that we want to destroy the factory, but the factory is like our home. Who would destroy his own home?" On the other hand, the worst accusations and suspicions put forward by some of the workers doesn't necessarily have to be true. A company can make losses without any conspiracies being involved, of course. In the end, it's just about who is going to pay - the capitalists or the workers.

But this conflict also involves other elements, like ethnic tensions between Egyptian workers and Indian technicians and administrative employees, with the former accusing the bosses of discriminating against them and the latter accusing the Egyptian workers of racism. This might be one of the reasons that the opportunists in the state-controlled union has chosen this particular struggle to score political points, supporting the strike in a way they would never have done if the factory was owned by an Egyptian investor or the state.

It should also be pointed out that some people, especially the representatives of the state-controlled union, is probably exaggerating the contrast between the state of the factory before and after privatization. In fact, much of the responsibility for the decline of the factory rests with the government, that has refused to do necessary investments since the 70's or early 80's at least (several fires in the textile factory in Mahalla last year was blamed on neglect of basic maintenance, for example). Contrary to what many liberal economists would argue, this does not prove that states are incapable of running profitable companies - it only proves that a government that is in principle opposed to state involvement in industry is bound to destroy it. For a government obsessed with privatization, the losses and inefficiencies haunting state-owned industries is not regarded as a failure or a problem to fix, but as vindication of it's own neo-liberal ideology.

Another small but significant detail: When Sarah Carr and I went to the Indorama headquarters in Maadi yesterday, we were received by Administrative Manager General Emad Abdel Khaliq, in an office tastefully decorated with model fighter-jets. I suspect this man was not recruited to Indorama for any previous experience of the textile industry, but for his contacts within the security apparatus - which also tells us something important about how the Egyptian economy works.

To round up, here is a couple of pics that might symbolize the basic nature of this conflict and the priorities of the current management:

1) The air-conditioned office building:

2) One of the run-down buses formerly used to transport workers:

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