Thursday, March 31, 2016

Labor Protests Against Minister of Religious Endowments

Tuesday, March 15, 2016
Jano Charbel

In light of a wave of labor protests against the minister of endowments, 12 of the ministry’s employees have recently been referred to criminal prosecution for protesting, while the minister has personally threatened thousands of other employees with dismissals if they embark on strikes against his policies.

Despite these threats, protests against Minister Mokhtar Gomaa have been ongoing this week, particularly outside the ministry’s offices in the Dokki district of Giza.

Hundreds of the ministry’s employees suspended industrial action on Sunday following the minister’s threats. However, a small but determined group of protesters remain outside the ministry’s Giza offices, persistent in presenting their demands.

These demands include the enforcement of the monthly minimum wage (LE1,200) applicable to state employees, dropping the ministry’s lawsuit for the prosecution of the 12 protesting employees, an end to the losses being incurred by the Endowment Ministry’s officials, accountability of those officials found guilty of corruption or misappropriation of public assets, and the appointment of specialized investment analysts to administer the ministry’s lands, real estate and funds, rather than leaving this to non-specialized religious clerics.

Other than the 150,000 mosques reportedly owned by the Ministry, as well as a number of factories, the ministry owns ample agricultural land, which it rents out to farmers, as well as residential buildings. Part of the reason why the ministry is reported to be incurring losses is that it is not fully able to collect rent or taxes from the land and real estate it rents out.

“The ministry’s authorities continue to mismanage and to squander Egypt’s public funds, and this has negatively affected us in terms of our financial rights, our contractual rights, and our basic labor rights,” Sabry Shehata, a protesting employee of the ministry who works as a mosque custodian in the Giza town of Awseem, tells Mada Masr.

Shehata did not have figures to back up these claims of financial mismanagement by ministerial officials. However, the custodian explains, “Although I’ve been employed by the ministry for over six years now, my total monthly wage amounts to LE600. Moreover, I don’t have an official contract and I'm deprived of the right to the national minimum wage, to health insurance or social insurance, and bonuses.”

Shehata adds that this is the case with nearly 11,000 of his fellow ministry employees.

In televised interviews with the privately owned CBC Extra channel on Sunday, several disgruntled employees protesting outside the ministry claimed that the average wage of (non-administrative) employees amounts to just LE700 per month.

The ministry’s spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

But on March 12, the ministry’s webpage mentioned that Gomaa reportedly met with a delegation of striking employees and received a list of their demands, and has since been working to resolve them, along with specialized ministerial committees.

“There has been no specific response as to our demands from the minister,"  Shehata counters. "This minister in particular is causing numerous problems. He doesn’t solve problems, but only creates them.”

Gomaa also issued a statement on Saturday against the protesting employees stating that there is “no room for those who obstruct or hinder work” at the ministry.

At the onset of this wave of labor unrest against his policies, Gomaa had previously issued a statement on the ministry’s website on March 2, in which he claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood is attempting to infiltrate the ministry, establish sleeper cells within it and instigate unrest. Gomaa described the Muslim Brotherhood as being “the terrorist society,” and claimed that the ministry’s officials are vigilant and would not allow for such infiltration.

The statement was issued just one day after nearly 600 workers at the Damanhour Carpet Company launched a strike on March 1, with many demanding Gomaa’s resignation. Located in the Nile Delta governorate of Beheira, the company is managed by the Ministry of Endowments, and it produces carpets for the thousands of mosques administered by the ministry nationwide.

The striking textile workers have been demanding the payment of the monthly minimum wage investment and raw materials needed for production, and the re-operation of several of the company’s stalled production lines.

On March 13, protesting workers suspended their 12-day strike after receiving ministerial reassurances that their demands would be met.

However, in October and November of last year, workers at the Damanhour Carpet Company had gone on strike for these exact reasons, in addition to the nonpayment of overdue bonuses.

Similarly, in October 2015, over 1,000 of the ministry’s employees embarked on a protest rally outside the Abdeen Presidential Palace, in downtown Cairo with identical demands, but were forcefully dispersed by police.

Beyond labor issues, Gomaa has been provoking controversy since the military backed ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, after unifying and dictating Friday prayer sermons to all preachers employed at the ministry’s mosques, ensuring that they are in support of the government.

Under Gomaa’s leadership, the Ministry of Endowments has also implored its mosque preachers to use their sermons to express support of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s administration.

By decree in 2013, Gomaa also revoked the licenses of an estimated 50,000 preachers in smaller mosques not under control of the ministry.

Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the January 25 uprising this year, Gomaa’s ministry denounced protests against the state, claiming that such actions are “malignant conspiracies” of the “ill-hearted, weak believers; those who don’t believe in the country and carry extremist ideas, who work on disintegrating society and destabilizing it.”

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