Unfulfilled economic and political demands keep Egypt’s laborers furious
The first two weeks of September have witnessed a massive wave of strikes, with many more planned for the rest of the month. These are taking place despite the law - issued in April - criminalizing strikes which harm the national economy, and despite regulations issued by the ruling military junta making negotiations during the course of strikes unacceptable.
Hundreds of thousands of workers and employees have launched strikes, sit-ins and marches to protest their working conditions. Among these are public school teachers - who are planning a general strike on the new academic year's first day of classes, 17 September; workers at private and public-sector textile mills; security and custodial workers at the American University in Cairo; farmers; and nurses and doctors in eight different governorates.
These strike actions come against a political backdrop that once seemed encouraging to Egypt’s 27-million labor force.
Shortly after President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in 11 February, over 500,000 workers, professionals, farmers, employees and pensioners moved to establish their own independent trade unions and federations to provide a bargaining mechanism for workers long deprived of negotiating with both the state and the business community. These independent unions are reportedly playing a significant role in organizing protest actions and strikes nationwide.
Yet the recent resurgence of widespread strikes, analysts say, reflect a deep disillusionment with the democratic transition process, with workers feeling more and more that improving their economic and political conditions were but hollow promises from the revolution.
"The primary demand behind all the strikes - in the public, private and informal sectors - is improved incomes in line with increasing living expenses," said Karam Saber, director of the Land Center for Human Rights. Other common demands include the payment of overdue bonuses, incentive payments, fixed or full-time contracts for full-time work, among other demands.
"The interim authorities have made very little progress in terms of raising wages, incomes and salaries; or in terms of putting a cap on the salaries of managerial officials in the form of a maximum wage," Saber said.
According to Saber Barakat, a member of the caretaker council at the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, there are other reasons motivating the working class to protest and strike. One of the main factors causing dismay is the fact that Mubarak's officials and generals are still calling the shots and pulling Egypt's strings. The old guard is still in power.
"The revolution gave workers the impression that their conditions would improve; but reality has proven otherwise," said Barakat. "The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has sent signals to investors reassuring them that their interests will be protected and upheld."
In April, the SCAF and the interim cabinet issued a law outlawing strikes, and they have failed to issue a new trade union law to replace the old and restrictive 1976 law which places severe bureaucratic hurdles on independent labor organization. Furthermore, these authorities have insisted they will not engage in negotiations with strikers until they stop striking or protesting.
Egyptian laborers’ grievances are countless, and the fruits of the 18-day revolution that raised the slogans of freedom and social justice are yet to be reaped.
The interim cabinet has been procrastinating over implementing an LE700 minimum wage. On Wednesday, Finance Minister Hazem al-Beblawy said that the government will implement it in January 2012, six months later than originally announced.
Some 700 textile workers at the Indorama Shebin al-Kom Textile Company - which was privatized in 2007 - went on strike this week, and around 400 of them blocked highways, roads and even occupied the Munifiya Governorate headquarters on Monday to demand the re-nationalization of their company, as well as improved working conditions and wages.
In the Nile Delta governorate of Gharbiya, over 1000 workers went on strike at the Wool Production Company in the town of Samannoud on Saturday, and on the same day, over 3000 workers at the Nasr Company for Fabric Dyeing in Mahalla City went on strike. Both groups of workers were demanding the payment of overdue bonuses, along with increased incentive payments.
Elsewhere in Mahalla City, over 20,000 workers at the Misr Company for Spinning and Weaving threatened to launch an open-ended strike this past week. Workers at this massive textile mill (the largest in the Middle East) demand increased bonuses and food allowances. They also demand increased investment in public sector textile enterprises in order to save the industry from collapse.
"All of Egypt's workers from Aswan to Alexandria are exploited and under-paid. The interim government and SCAF should set a just and adequate minimum wage, for workers in all sectors of the economy, which is in keeping with rising living expenses," said Mohamed al-Attar, a veteran labor activist at Misr Company for Spinning and Weaving.
"Workers are tired of empty promises. Workers gave the authorities seven months to address these common grievances and have seen little to nothing in terms of actual reforms. We are reaching boiling point.”
On Thursday, Minister of Manpower and Immigration Ahmed Hassan al-Borai said that labor unions’ elections will be postponed till after the parliamentary elections slated for November, yet another blow to the aspirations of independent labor organizations which have been trying to legally consolidate their emerging structures.
"The interim authorities are treating workers and the general populace just as Mubarak did. If they do not change their course then another popular revolt may break out," Attar said.
*Photograph by Ahmed Hayman