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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 September 2007, 20:35 GMT 21:35 UK
Egyptian workers occupy factory
An empty textile factory in Egypt (archive)
Several textile factories have been hit by strikes this year
Thousands of workers have taken control of one of Egypt's biggest state-owned textile factories in a continuing protest over pay and work conditions.

The workers also want the head of the company to be sacked, and are demanding the release of five representatives who were detained by police on Monday.

The strike at the Misr Helwan Spinning and Weaving Company's factory in Mahalla al-Kubra began on Sunday.

A strike at the plant last year led to a wave of labour protests across Egypt.

The industrial action in December forced the government to back down and meet the workers' demand for annual bonuses equivalent to 45 days' wages.

But representatives for the workers said the textile company did not fulfil its promise despite posting profits of 217m Egyptian pounds ($39m) for the last financial year, and are now demanding a fair share.

Government fears

The protests by an estimated 27,000 workers brought the textile company to a standstill.

Groups of employees beat drums and chanted slogans demanding the dismissal of the chairman of the board, Mohib Salah al-Din, and criticising the management of the government holding company which owns the factory.

They say we are the leaders who have incited 27,000 workers to strike - how, I do not understand
Wael Habeeb

They also called for the dismissal of the representatives of the government-approved labour union who visited them on Sunday.

The protests intensified on Monday after the public prosecutor ordered the detention of five of the workers' representatives on charges of inciting the strike, unlawful gathering and destruction of public properties.

"They say we are the leaders who have incited 27,000 workers to strike," Wael Habeeb, one of the five men, told the BBC Arabic Service. "How, I do not understand!"

The BBC's Arab affairs analyst, Magdi Abdelhadi, says the Egyptian government, which does not tolerate dissent, is fearful of the workers' growing self-confidence.

There are fears that labour unrest might spread to other low-paid industries as it did last year, our correspondent says.

While it is much easier to crush a handful of political protesters in Cairo, using police force against thousands of striking workers could prove to be a far more difficult task, our correspondent adds.

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