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Commentary. A letter in solidarity with the 32 workers of a German-owned cement plant arrested and sentenced to three years for participating in a peaceful sit-in.

Egyptian regime responds to economic crisis by repressing workers

The first hearing of the case on appeal of the 32 workers of the Torah cement plant was set on July 18. They were sentenced in first instance to three years of imprisonment a few days after their arrest.

They were imprisoned in a peaceful garrison, after 55 days of protest. They were demanding the right to be employed on permanent contracts with full guarantees; these rights had been set by a judgment more than a year ago. In the meantime, the workers remain in jail, while dozens of political parties, trade unions and organizations denounce their physical mistreatment and humiliation since the arrest. Unfortunately, the Torah case is only the latest in a series of egregious incidents of repression against workers’ struggles.

Twenty-six workers from the Navy shipyards in Alexandria have been on trial for more than a year in a military court because of a strike. Many of them were forced to resign under blackmail, and 1,000 other employees (out of the 2,300 employees of the shipyards) were forcibly excluded from work. In September, a transit strike was nipped in the bud by a number of preventive arrests. Six union leaders were kidnapped at dawn in their homes, were disappeared for a few days and finally were convicted in court. Two of them were released of prison in March after seven months, and are now under house arrest. Furthermore, in February, repression stopped a strike of 3,000 people in Mahalla al-Kubra (a huge hub of the textile industry in the Nile Delta) that threatened to spread to all the 17,000 workers of the area.

The protest was revoked after the five leaders of the strike (all women) suffered disciplinary action and threats of dismissal. The Mahalla textile industries have historically been the focus of harsh struggles that several times have shaken the regimes in power in Egypt. And the list could go on: Just in the last few months, there have been dozens of arrests in the agro-food sector in Suez, in the fertilizer industry and telecommunications.

The independent Egyptian organization Democracy Meter issued a report on workers demonstrations in the period May 2016-April 2017. According to their data, at least 151 workers and trade unionists were arrested in these 11 months, and at least 2,691 were fired “for having exercised their right to strike.” In the same period, the organization has recorded 744 labor protests, far fewer than the previous year.

The drop on labor actions is not a coincidence. The repression of conflicts in the workplace has increased dramatically within a few months, together with the worsening economic crisis. Recent economic and monetary policies have caused a dramatic deterioration in the living conditions of workers and the middle classes, who are suffering welfare cuts and inflation above 30 percent for the last seven months. The regime is aware of the risk of social upheaval and has increased repressive measures against the protests. And in fact, several international organizations have issued condemnations in recent weeks, led by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The last one was the International Labor Organization (part of the U.N.) which has again placed Egypt on the black list of states that violate labor rights and trade union freedoms.

The el-Sisi regime has now smothered almost all forms of civil and political opposition, but it cannot contain the spread of widespread social struggles, which often do not report to any organization. In fact, under Mubarak, labor mobilizations almost always found a space for negotiation. The current military regime has refused to yield to labor actions; recognizing the legitimacy of protest and conceding victory to the labor movement would give momentum to other disputes and alarm investors, both local and foreign.

Crushing even the most basic and peaceful demonstrations to make an example has remained the regime’s only method to avoid a generalization of protests and to ensure stability. But the result is not guaranteed. The late Omar Seoud, a long-time union leader in Suez, a few days before his death declared to a Mada Masr journalist: “After all these years in the labor movement, I can safely say that very soon there will be a huge wave of protests that will invade the whole country.”

Meanwhile, on June 8, labor movements, political groups and human rights organizations launched a new appeal. They are providing their full support to the 32 arrested Torah cement plant workers. They call on trade unions and human rights organizations around the world “to manifest their solidarity with the workers for the hearing on June 18.”

THE APPEAL

On May 22, a peaceful sit-in of the workers at the Torah plant (south of Cairo) was attacked by the police in the middle of the night. Thirty-two workers were arrested, and all were sentenced to three years (the maximum sentence) in a closed trial on June 3. The charges are: assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest and obstruction of justice.

The workers (security personnel) only asked their employer to respect a judgment issued in May 2016, which forced the company to regularize their contractual status. In fact, according to their contracts, even though the workers have worked for 15 years in the same establishment, they cannot enjoy their full rights (health care, annual bonuses, etc.). The company (owned by Italcementi before, and now in the hands of German HeidelbergCement) has always refused to apply the ruling and regularize the workers.

In solidarity, organizations and trade unions also denounced the physical and psychological mistreatment of the workers during detention, who have not been able to meet family and colleagues since their arrest.

The trial and conviction is a clear violation of international treaties that guarantee the right of workers to protest peacefully. The torture suffered during the period of detention is a further violation of the most basic human rights.

The signatories of this petition:

  • They demand the release of the thirty-two individuals arrested and the suspension of the process, severely flawed by torture and ill-treatment inflicted during their detention.
  • They ask for the acceptance of their legitimate claims based on the May 2016 ruling that recognizes the full contractual rights.
  • They call on the Italian and European institutions to exert pressure on the Egyptian authorities to ensure the human rights of the thirty-two workers are respected, and in particular the right to a fair trial and the right to be treated humanely.
  • They call on the Italian and European institutions to exert pressure on Egypt to restore workers’ rights, including freedom to protest peacefully, the right to strike and the right to form independent trade unions (the International Labor Organization has again listed Egypt in the black list of countries that do not have a law on the right to organize trade unions).

No torture and arbitrary arrest! Freedom for the Torah workers!

Solidarity with the Egyptian workers – Italy

For contacts, information and support: solidarietaegitto@gmail.com

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