May 1, 2012
In Cairo's Tahrir Square, around 1,000 labor activists, workers and unionists celebrated Egypt's second Labor Day since the abdication of Hosni Mubarak. Turnout was low in comparison to last year's celebrations, which had included several thousand participants.
Labor Day events were also organized in Alexandria and a number of Nile Delta cities.
A number of workers’ marches made their way to Parliament, where they put forth their unmet demands — including a new minimum and maximum wage, the issuing of a long anticipated law for trade union liberties, improved pension plans, full-time contracts for full-time work, and the overturning of the law criminalizing strikes.
Carrying banners, flags and placards, workers chanted, "Bread, freedom and social justice," "The (right to) strike is legitimate, when faced with poverty and hunger," and "Life is bitter, we demand independent unions," along with a host of chants against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
Tens of protesters marched from the headquarters of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) and the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress (EDLC) to the People's Assembly where they demanded a minimum monthly wage of LE1,200 (around US$200) and a maximum wage of not more than 15 times the minimum wage.
Last month, the Islamist-dominated Parliament agreed, in principle, to a maximum wage of 35 times the minimum. However, labor activists argue that the proposed maximum monthly wage of LE50,000 (around US$8,000) is too high, especially in light of the current average wages for workers.
Among the political movements involved in today's protests and celebrations were Nasserist parties, the Nasserist-oriented Karama Party, the Communist Party, the Revolutionary Socialists, the Workers and Farmers Party, the Socialist Renewal Current and the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, along with independent and unaffiliated activists.
The Muslim Brotherhood, and its political arm the Freedom and Justice Party, were not to be seen in Tahrir. While tens of Salafis were in the square, they were not there for Labor Day but rather as part of an ongoing sit-in against the disqualification of presidential hopeful Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an ultra-conservative Islamist preacher.
Two presidential candidates were also present and delivered speeches in solidarity with Egypt's working classes. Addressing a small crowd near the square, presidential hopeful Hamdeen Sabbahi of the Karama Party said, "We demand an adequate minimum and maximum wage, which are tied to increasing living expenses."
Sabbahi praised the uphill struggles of Egypt's working classes during 30 oppressive years under the Mubarak regime. Sabbahi also praised the left-leaning presidential candidates Hesham al-Bastawisi, Abul Ezz al-Hariry and Khaled Ali. The Karama Party leader concluded, "May God bless the simple folks, the piecemeal workers, and the country as a whole."
Independent presidential hopeful Khaled Ali then addressed the crowd, shouting, "Happy Labor Day to all of Egypt's workers, farmers, fishermen and pensioners." Ali claimed that "without a doubt, we will establish a new minimum wage and maximum wage." The 40-year-old labor lawyer emphasized that his primary concern is "the re-nationalization of privatized companies."
Ali also called for a more industrialized Egypt. "Our economy is based around tourism, while we only produce ceramics and potato chips. We need a strong industrial basis for our national economy," he said. Ali went on to criticize the state's "reconciliation agreements with Mubarak's corrupt businessmen."
Furthermore, Ali spoke in solidarity with Ahmed al-Gizawy — an Egyptian lawyer imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for allegedly criticizing the country's monarchy. The presidential hopeful denounced the kafeel (sponsorship) system which leaves migrant workers at the mercy of their sponsor. Tens of workers chanted, "Down with the Saudi ruling family," and "Down with the sponsorship system" in response.
Ali concluded by demanding the recall of the Egyptian ambassador to Saudi Arabia until Gizawy is released and all charges against him are dropped. "Long live Egypt, and its workers — free and independent," he proclaimed.
Commenting on the failure of ruling authorities to issue a new trade union liberties law to replace Trade Union Law 35/1976, Kamal Abu Eita, president of the EFITU, said, "Independent unions are legitimate in light of the International Labor Organizations conventions (particularly Conventions 87 and 98) which Egypt ratified [in the 1950s].” Abu Eita added that independent trade unionism was also authorized by the former manpower minister, Ahmed al-Borai.
Borai said that "independent trade unions are a reality on the ground, regardless of the non-issuing of the Trade Union Liberties Law." Last year Borai had authorized the establishment of unions outside the confines of the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which had monopolized the country's union movement since 1957.
The ETUF had been at the center of all Labor Day celebrations since the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser. For the past two Labor Days, however, the state-controlled federation has been sidelined.
Borai concluded, "Next year we will celebrate the EFITU's growth, which will be the largest union — not only in Egypt, but in the entire Middle East."
The EFITU, which was established on 30 January 2011, currently has an estimated membership of two million workers. However, despite the fact that tens of thousands of workers have been quitting the ETUF since 2007, this state-controlled federation still claims a membership of four million.
*Photograph by Virginie Nguyen
*Photograph by Virginie Nguyen