Monday, July 18, 2011

Still seeking economic justice in Egypt

Protests and strikes are still a daily occurrence in Egypt. The revolution in the country was because of poverty. Even after Hosni Mubarak was forced out of leadership economic justice has not come fast enough. So employees for textile, public construction, medical and other industries organize and strike to demand working rights.

One strike caught the attention of Associated Press writer Ali Gomaa when it came with deadly results. From a story that we found at NPR, when frustrated textile workers took to the streets, a policeman urged a truck driver to clear the protesters out of the way.

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.

Her husband, a school administrator who moonlights at a pharmacy, brought in about $190 a month. Their combined income, assuming Hawas actually got paid, was never enough to cover their expenses.

Rent alone ate up a third of Hawas' family income. Almost all the rest went to the $165 a month they paid for private tutoring for their children, a standard for Egyptian households because of the shoddy education system. Then there was food and transportation — just getting to and from work cost Hawas 40 cents every day.

She was a quiet, devout woman who fasted from dawn to dusk four months out of the year instead of the traditional one month. But she came home depressed and angry most days, according to her husband, dragged down by the oppressive conditions at work.

As the years passed, management extended workers' hours to nearly 12 a day, they said. Overtime was calculated at 10 piasters, about a penny, an hour. Friday remained an official holiday, but workers said they were told they would be fired if they didn't show up. They were promised 35 cents for that day of work, but the extra money, like the basic salary, often went unpaid, along with all bonuses from 2007 through 2011.

Over the years, the minister of manpower intervened, as did the central bank governor. But in Mubarak's Egypt, assurances that were extended with one hand were brushed aside with the other.

June 7 began like almost every other day. Hawas woke before sunrise to offer a simple prayer: "We rely on God." Then she made breakfast for her family.

Hawas headed out of her apartment, her hair tucked under a headscarf, and hopped on a minibus for the short ride to the factory. She punched her time card and joined about 100 colleagues in a fleet of taxis and minibuses that shuttled them from Talkha to the United Bank in nearby Mansoura.

The mood on the short drive was subdued, the workers determined. They decided to draw as much attention as they could in front of the bank, and tried to close off one side of the street.


But traffic was building up and horns — the soundtrack of Egypt's roads — began to blare.
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.

Hawas turned to Eissa, who was standing near her, and said: "We'll get our rights."

Not long after that, the truck rammed into both of them.

Eissa was dragged under it for about 50 yards before the driver stopped. Her right ear was shorn off, and two fingers on her right hand were broken. The friction from the tarmac shredded the skin on her back and shoulders.

By the time Hawas reached the hospital, she was dead.

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