Textile Workers of Shubra al-Khayma

by Mona Hammam
published in MER82

Dire material necessity is increasingly forcing Egyptian women to take up wage labor. Job conditions are poor, pay is low and social sanctions are heavy. Women make up 12 percent of the Egyptian industrial workforce, concentrated in textiles, food industries and pharmaceuticals. In textiles, an important Egyptian industry, their present numbers and their historical role are quite substantial.

A textile factory in Shubra al-Khayma, on the outskirts of Cairo, provides evidence of the conditions faced by Egyptian women factory workers. Out of 20,000 workers there in 1975, there were 1,150 women: 400 engaged in the manufacturing of silk, 400 in the manufacture of wool and 350 in cotton spinning. This research was conducted over a five-month period in 1975 as part of a larger study on the role of literacy education in fostering liberation struggles among oppressed people, One hundred and forty-eight workers were interviewed (37 percent of all the female workers employed in silk spinning). Sixty-five percent of the workers were single, from 19 to 27 years old; all of them had begun work at the age of fifteen. Twenty-five percent were married and 10 percent were divorcees; they were from 22 to 34 years old. Ninety-one percent of the workers had received their primary school certificate; 10 had received some preparatory schooling, and about 0.7 percent had actually received their preparatory school certificate. Around 33 percent of the workers were illiterate. All illiterate workers were required, by law, to attend the literacy classes provided them (again, by law) at the factory. Their promotions at work depended on their successful completion of these classes, and monetary incentives were used to encourage workers to attend and complete their studies.

Compared with other factories, this one had many special features advantageous to workers, and especially to women: housing; transportation to and from work, day care centers, consumer cooperatives, a clinic, a sporting club and literacy classes. Yet in spite of these features the overall picture is one of extremely bad conditions, aggravated by women’s own special forms of oppression.

Factory Structure

There was a sharp class separation between the workers and the petit bourgeois administrative staff. The factory compound consisted of three separate branches of textile production, silk, cotton and wool, each housed in its own factory building. Next to the factories was a small two-story house which served as a clinic and a day care center. On the other side of the compound stood the administration building. The dividing line between both sides of the compound was an armed barricade, and the workers could not pass through it without proving sufficient cause. Moreover, the administration staff entered through one gate and the workers through another. Both gates had 24-hour armed security guards.

The administration had its own bus, and the workers theirs. This reflected the different working hours kept (the administrators began work at 8 am and the workers at 6 am), but also served to reinforce class distinctions. The bus routes were different. The workers’ busses picked up the workers from central locations in “popular districts.” The administration busses picked up the staff from central locations in lower middle class or middle class districts. When workers were allowed to report in for work at 8 am (as in the case of janitors working in the administration building, or in the case of women workers who chose to combine the two half-hours a day time off periods for nursing a newborn and could, therefore, come in to work at 8 am three times a week), these workers did not ride the administration bus, not even in the back, but had to ride, instead, in a buggy precariously hauled behind the administration bus. Management assigned me to commute from Cairo to Shubra on the administration bus.

Selection of the workers to be interviewed initially rested in the hands of the section head of the silk factory. The hierarchy at the factory, from the base upwards, consisted of the workers (all women), the foreman (a woman), the section engineer (also a woman), the section head (male), the production manager (male) and the factory manager (male). I was assigned to sit in the office of the section engineer in the silk factory and wait for the section head to send me the workers, individually. In time, the workers who had already been interviewed began spreading the word to their co-workers, urging others to request permission from the section head to volunteer for the interviews. The section head proved to be amenable to the workers’ initiatives because I took the suggestion of some of the first workers interviewed and interviewed him as well. He was flattered and allowed me to enter inside the factory proper, and also permitted them to volunteer. Their assessment of the situation had proved extremely perceptive.

In the interview with the section head, I asked him which, from management’s point of view, was the preferred worker: the single or the married woman. He replied that the job (spinning) required dexterity and since the thread was so fine, it required a woman’s hands. He added that women were better workers than men because they were more docile, “liked to please the boss,” took orders well and “only needed a kind word every now and again to boost their morale and increase their productivity.” The single woman was the preferred worker because her absentee rate was much lower than the married woman. She had fewer responsibilities at home, was less prone to fatigue or falling ill, was more efficient about her work because she realizes, or hopes, that her work at the factory is temporary, lasting only until she gets married. The married woman, on the other hand, had advantages as a worker in that her turnover rate was lower than the single woman, because not only did she depend on her earnings, but so did her marriage.

Working Conditions

Interviewing the workers inside the factory proved impossible because of the noise level of the machines. None of the workers or employees were provided with plugs to protect their ears from the effects of the noise. The workers were provided with a uniform (for which they paid a nominal sum) of a blue tunic, thongs and a red head kerchief. They had to stand for a total of seven hours a day without any rest pauses, not even for lunch. Those who brought sandwiches with them to work, hoping to get a chance to eat them while working, could not eat them either for lack of time or because the sandwiches had rotted from the heat or the chemicals.

During the discussion with one of the workers about the sanitary and health conditions at the factory, she exclaimed: “Sure, it’s bad. Most of us complain of headaches, varicose veins, dizziness. But, if we request permission to go to the clinic, we run the risk of getting demerit points or of just being told what we know already -- that we have to endure. But, if you think our situation is bad, you should go into the cotton-ginning section. No women are allowed there at all because conditions are so bad. It’s just men.” She volunteered to smuggle me into the cotton-ginning section.

As soon as I walked in, I was almost overcome by the smell of chemicals. The section engineer immediately came over to where we were standing. The worker hurriedly explained to him that I had come all the way from America to do research on factory conditions in Egypt, and scurried off. The engineer proceeded to volunteer to show me around the plant, thinking (or perhaps hoping) that I was primarily interested in how the machines operated and in the chemical processes of production. As we were walking up and down the aisles, two workers, seeing a notebook in my hand, approached me. “Are you doing research on this factory?” asked one. Before I could respond, the engineer tried to brush me aside, telling the workers off for having left their machines unattended and saying that I was only interested in the technical aspects of production. Both workers ignored the Engineer and addressed themselves directly to me: “We heard that you were interested in the workers, and if you really are, then you should be talking to us and not to him,” pointing to the engineer. By this time, around eight other workers had left their machines and had surrounded both the engineer and myself. “I am interested in you,” I said, “in your working conditions and not in the technical operations of the plant.” The engineer tried unsuccessfully to exercise his authority. If he could not handle the situation by himself, he risked the intervention of the section head or of some higher authority. But he feared the collective power of the workers who had surrounded him and who totally ignored his directives to go back to work.

One by one, oftentimes in unison or adding on to one another’s statements, the workers proceeded to air their grievances. First was the heat. The temperature reached 42 degrees Celsius in the winter and 46 in the summer. They were provided with two sets of clothing a year consisting of woolen shirts and trousers and a pair of clogs. The woolen clothes were obviously unbearable in this heat. Moreover, the chemicals at the plant eroded the clothes, and the workers were forced to wear their own clothes to work. The expense accrued from wearing their own clothes was beyond the means of the worker. The clogs were totally unsuitable since the workers had to wade in liquid chemicals that dripped from the machines. The ventilation system worked only erratically, if at all, and the workers, not provided with goggles or masks, suffered extensively from eye and chest diseases.

Because of these deplorable conditions, the turnover in this section was extremely high. Those who remained on the job were obligated to do involuntary overtime. Management, in seeking to stabilize the work force, instituted a system whereby a worker in one shift had to cover for a worker who does not turn up for work in the following shift. This meant a worker’s hours could add up to 14 hours in one day. The rationale behind this was to reduce worker absenteeism by fostering antagonism between the workers. These workers were also not given any rest pauses and, because of the chemicals and the heat, could not bring their lunches to work. Ostensibly, they were given monetary compensation for lack of lunch breaks and for the “climate of work,” but these “benefits” were annulled by the system of demerits and fines and by the steady deterioration of the workers’ health and wellbeing. Two days after my visit to the cotton-ginning plant, the workers occupied the plant and demanded redress of grievances. I learned about their occupation not from the newspapers, nor from the section head, but from one of the workers at the day care center whose husband was involved. The occupation ended after three days when management agreed to raise the compensation for meals, clothing and climate.

Perceptions and Problems

I began every interview by making clear that I represented no organization, governmental or otherwise, and had no power to influence decisions concerning their lives. This warded off any possible expectation on the workers’ part that I was there to resolve their problems and helped me to gauge their own perceptions and assessments of their own individual or collective power to transform conditions that affect their lives. Only two workers out of the 148 interviewed said, in effect, “Well, if you can’t do anything about our problems, then what’s the point of talking about them?” Five workers, sharing the same skepticism about the use of talking about their problems, said, on separate occasions, what amounted to: “Well, at least you’re aware that doing something about them rests in our hands.” “You, the women?” I asked. “No, we the working class.” The vast majority of the workers’ responses to my clarification ranged from sheer resignation (this was particularly true on the part of the workers who had been sent to me by the section head), to enthusiasm for a chance to air their grievances and to find a sympathetic ear. This was true of all the volunteers and of a few of the workers sent by the section head.

A discussion of one particular problem, that of transportation to and from work, proved to be a turning point. I had expressed dissatisfaction at riding on the administration bus and not being able to arrive on time for the morning shift, yet I did not dare walk out into the streets alone, without a male escort, at 5 am to catch the working class bus. This was a central problem in their lives. The fact that I was aware of it and shared their fears helped to build their trust. Worker after worker raised this problem with me, since the vast majority of them had to commute to work. The social taboos militating against a woman’s walking alone in the street at 5 am (some of the workers had to leave for work even earlier) compelled the workers to suggest that I continue to ride the administration bus in the morning but leave on the working class bus in the afternoon.

Discussing the problem of transportation opened up a host of related problems: working hours and shifts and how these affected the women’s attempts to coordinate their roles as mother, wife, and worker. Moreover, it pointed to the contradiction posed by the prevailing social attitudes between being a woman (i.e., sheltered, dependent socially and economically, confined) and being a worker (where the reverse hold sway). Six single workers interviewed, for instance, who had no male relatives living in the same household and had, therefore, to venture out alone in the streets at five in the morning, reported that they had been beaten up by male passersby for no other reason than to exercise the social sanction conferred upon them by virtue of their being male. These women were considered “loose” for walking alone in the streets at such an hour, and it was, therefore, the responsibility of any male to “teach them a lesson” for such “licentiousness.” All had been harassed and propositioned and had to resort to finding a reliable and concerned male neighbor to escort them to the bus stop.

This problem, they assured me, was common to many of the female workers at the factory. “It’s unbearable,” said one worker who was single. “I have to wake up at 4 am, then wake up my father so that he can escort me to the bus stop. He’s old and weak, but he refuses to let me walk alone at this unearthly hour. It’s half an hour’s walk to the bus stop from our house, then for me it’s another hour-and-a-half bus ride to the factory by the time the bus makes its rounds.”

The problem is compounded for the married worker and especially for working mothers. The married worker, whose husband ordinarily kept different working hours than herself (either working the night shift of a job that starts at 8 am) would have to wake her husband up at the same time as she gets up. When the woman has to work the afternoon shift, as she must do every other week, the ensuing conflict of schedules between husband and wife often becomes a cause of discord in the household.

According to one working mother, her routine consisted of waking her husband and children at 4 am, feeding them, then all would walk her to the bus stop. Her husband would see the children off to school and she would have returned from work by the time the children came back from school. She would then take them shopping at the market before she cooked (80 percent of the workers interviewed did not have a refrigerator and had to shop daily for groceries), feed the children, then her husband. The order was reversed when she had to work the afternoon shift. She would then wake at 6 am and feed her husband and children. She would see the children off to school, cook for them so that the meal would be ready when they all came back home, start off for work around 11:30 am and return from work at 9:30 pm.

For working mothers whose children were not of school age, two alternatives presented themselves. Either the children had to be deposited with a neighbor or relative living close by until either parent came home from work, or the mother would have to take the children with her to work and deposit them at the day care center. Only four of the working mothers interviewed used the day care center at the factory, and only because they had no other choice. All the working mothers said they preferred not to use the day care center.

The day care center consisted of two tiny rooms, one with seven beds, the other with five desks and twenty chairs. The cost to the worker was 5 percent of her monthly wage for the first child, 4 percent for the second and 3 percent for the third. Although the day care center hours corresponded to the work shifts, the supervisor (who had a degree in social welfare) only worked from 8 am to 3 pm. From 6 to 8 in the morning and from 3 to 8 in the afternoon, the children were taken care of by illiterate nannies. The center accepted children from the age of one and a half, provided the children with uniforms and with one snack consisting of wafer chocolates or biscuits. The children usually brought their own lunches but (we assume because the atmosphere was so depressing) usually left without eating their sandwiches. There were no toys or reading material at the center. Although the center, ostensibly, could accommodate 30 children, there were never more than ten children when I visited. Six of these children lived in the company’s workers’ housing complex, the other four had to commute with a parent. Flies abounded in the rooms. No effort was made to provide the children with even oral instruction, the alphabet, counting or even singing songs.

“It’s deplorable,” said one, “that the children have to live -- if you call that living -- according to my working hours, that their day should start with a long bus ride at 4:30 in the morning, only to be deposited with strangers who couldn’t possibly love them. At least, when I can leave the children with a neighbor or a relative, I am reassured that they are loved and will be well taken care of. If anything happens to the children, their guardians will be accountable to me. In the day care center the supervisors aren’t accountable to me. It’s just a job to them and they don’t really care for the children.” Others added that the personnel at the nursery were unqualified and that they didn’t see the point in paying for this service when they could get better service, and free, elsewhere (with a neighbor or relative). As one worker put it: “We can’t afford to pay to have our children tended by someone else. We can barely afford to feed and clothe them as it is. If we didn’t have to work, we’d be taking care of them ourselves.”

Education and Literacy

Education was viewed in terms of preparation for better paying (or “easier”) jobs, and as a means of enhancing social status. As one worker expressed it, “Here we are, we create the wealth of this country through our labor. We’re the ones who have made the chair that the clerk in the administration building is sitting on, the car that the factory manager is riding in, the material that the secretary has used to make her dress. Yet we are treated like scum because we are workers and they are treated like royalty because they have an education. If we were educated, we wouldn’t be treated with the sort of condescension we encounter whenever we have to ride the administration bus, for instance.” Another worker added that, “We are penalized by being poor and for being poor, and we end up remaining poor. It’s a vicious circle.”

The textbook used in the literacy classes -- specifically designed for adult illiterates in industrial working conditions -- contained in addition to a predictable class bias, only one reference in the entire text to a woman. [1] This is in the conclusion, and only in passing. ‘Umar, a worker, comes home after passing his literacy proficiency examination. His wife greets him at the door and congratulates him when he tells her the good news. This brief mention, and then only in a traditional role, is in spite of the fact that women in Egypt comprise 12 percent of the industrial work force. Women’s existence as industrial workers is simply eradicated.

I asked the women who had attended the literacy class at the factory if they recognized themselves in the text. All responded that they recognized themselves as workers, with the important qualification that their own material condition differed considerably from the idealized one presented in the text. When asked about the fact that there were no women industrial workers portrayed in the text, 75 percent of the women replied that such an omission was a comment not on the authors nor on sexually discriminatory social attitudes but on the nature of factory work. As one worker put it, “What woman in her right mind would want to become a factory worker -- I’m glad it’s not encouraged in the text. We do it because we have to, not because we choose to. If we don’t work in the factory, we suffer materially, and when we do work in the factory we suffer physically. Obviously, we’ve all chosen the latter -- or perhaps the choice has been made for us. To give this ‘choice’ wider currency by including it in a textbook so that young girls would want to emulate us would be unfair to them. The laugh would be on us who know better.” The anomaly, as they saw it, was not in the text but in their own real-life situation.

Trade Unions

I asked if they had ever aired their grievances in trade union meetings, or if they had ever collectively agitated to improve their working conditions. Every single worker, without exception, expressed dissatisfaction with the trade unions as they are presently constituted. Most used words like “hopeless” and “useless” to describe them. As one worker put it, “How can they represent our interests when they don’t even listen to our problems? And, if they do listen during the union meetings, nothing is done about them afterwards. We don’t even bother to go to the meetings anymore. They’re held after the work shift and most of us, knowing it will be a waste of time to attend, prefer just to go home immediately after work and make better use of our time.” Another put it more graphically: “From the trade union leader’s point of view, he knows he cannot buy off the worker nor sell out the boss. But if it came to selling out the worker, he would. Water doesn’t flow upstream.”

If the trade unions do not represent the interests of the workers, how can they achieve satisfaction for their immediate demands and obtain redress of grievances? All of them stated that trade unions were vital organs and in the interest of workers, provided they were truly democratic and representative, and defended the workers. Since the unions presently fail in this role, they will continue to be useless until they are reconstituted. Asked how this could happen, most of the workers shied away from such a politically sensitive question. One worker, however, expressed figuratively what many of the others felt but dared not express: “In order to get to the other shore, we have to know how to swim. As the unions now stand, we only get as far as the edge of the water. If we jump in, as in an illegal strike or factory occupation (as the men always do), without knowing how to swim, we drown. We must learn to swim, and those of us who have already learned -- by just jumping in or by being taught by others -- must take the responsibility to teach the rest of us.”

I asked if they had ever gone out on strike. All replied strikes often got violent and men were more able to cope with violence than women. Moreover, when workers occupy the factories -- the traditional form of agitation and protest by Egyptian workers -- they remain inside for several days, weeks or months. “It would be the death of us to stay overnight at the factory -- let alone stay overnight at the factory with male workers. The death of us, for married and single women alike.” A married worker pointed to the obvious: “We have family responsibilities and can’t afford to stay away from home. Who’d take care of the children? Normally, we just play a supportive role during strikes. We would make sure to cook and find a way to carry the food to the strikers.”

When I asked if they had ever engaged in any form of collective action, particularly around the problem of working hours about which they had all complained, two stories were recounted. In one incident, an entire shift had gone to the production manager to attempt to change the working hours of two shifts. They were told they could all quit if they didn’t like the existing arrangement, since there were plenty of others to take their place.

The other incident centered around elections for trade union leadership. It is customary at this factory for the candidate to go to each production unit during his campaign, and for the women workers to accompany the candidate, chanting slogans in his support as he makes his rounds. During one election year, the candidate had been the production manager and the women came out in his support. During the following election year, it was a toss-up between the same production manager and a section head. The section head, also a man, had been responsive to the grievances of the workers in his section (all women) and was, therefore, their choice.

Because the women refused to back the production manager, he issued an order barring the women from leaving their machines unattended to escort the candidate of their choice. The women refused to comply with this directive and proceeded, as they have always done, to escort their candidate. The production manager went personally to the rally being held on his opponent’s behalf and ordered the women to attend to their machines. The women reminded him that they had rallied for him the year before. The debate got heated and the production manager shoved one woman to the ground. The rest of the women, on seeing her fall, ganged up on the production manager and knocked him to the ground. The women were subsequently dismissed, demoted or transferred to other production sections. According to one version of the story, the production manager did not dare come back to work for two months, partly from injuries and partly from fear.

Why the Women Work

Each and every worker interviewed -- married, single or divorced -- stated that the singular reason for seeking employment at the factory was economic insolvency of the family household, and that it would be impossible for the family to make ends meet without their earnings. All the workers, regardless of marital status, contributed at least half of their monthly wages to the household budget. The majority of the single women contributed two thirds of their earnings and kept one third as savings toward getting married. All the single workers stated that they intended to leave their jobs upon getting married, an option encouraged by labor legislation. All the married and divorced women said they would leave their jobs if they could, but they had no alternative except to continue working.

Most of the married women had no control over the household budget and had to hand over their earnings to the husband. The single women, on the other hand, had to hand over their earnings to the father or a brother. Only if she were the sole breadwinner in a family without males in the same household would she have total control over her hard-earned income. Besides economic insolvency, the only other reason given for seeking employment (and this was only by single women) was that employment offered them a “socially acceptable opportunity to leave home, meet people independently from the family, and come to terms with the world.”


[1] The textbook for the eradication of illiteracy classes in the factory was authored by ‘Abd al-Fattah Shalabi and Muhammad al-Shinnawi and entitled al-Qira’a al-Asasiyya lil-Bi’a al-Sina‘iyya (Basic Reader for Industrial Working Environment) (Cairo: Ministry of Education, 1974). The Ministry also publishes a different reader for workers in the agricultural sector.

Filed under: