Egypt workers demand raises and rights

1156.jpgHidden away in a concrete loading bay around the side of a major Cairo postal office, about 100 workers in their 20s and 30s gather among a forest of placards.

Following a trail blazed by a succession of Egyptian textile workers, concrete makers, train drivers and others in recent months, they say they will stay put until their demands are met.


In a country where political opposition is heavily stifled and largely left to a small intellectual elite, the current series of strikes, sit-ins and protests is an unusually broad-based protest among a population normally associated with political indifference.

Joel Beinin, head of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo, says proponents of democratic reform in Egypt should be “more excited” by the wave of labour unrest than they were by the emergence of anti-government street protests by the opposition Kifaya (Enough) group in 2005.

Underlying most of the strikes are demands for wage rises in an economy where it is not unusual even for professionals to hold down two jobs to feed their families.

But some strikes have taken on a political edge as workers protest against privatisations under President Hosni Mubarak’s sweeping economic reform programme.

And a few workers have begun calling for something Egypt has not had for decades – independent trade unions.

Strikes spread

Mohammad Attar is a textile worker in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla, and was an organiser in one of most successful strikes.

Some 20,000 workers downed tools and occupied their factory last December, inspiring a series of copycat strikes as their demands for an unpaid bonus promised to all labourers nationally were eventually met.

The father of three is in jubilant mood as we speak on the phone.

Recent threats to strike further have just earned him and his co-workers a raise – boosting his monthly salary of 320 Egyptian pounds (US$56) by 50 Egyptian pounds (US$9), with 7% annual increases promised.

He says his activities have resulted in several summonses from the security forces.

But, for the first time, he says he is not afraid: “I stand in front of them and we are equal. In fact we are even better than them – we are in the production sector but they are just in the service sector. We are the backbone of the national economy.”

Within four months of the Mahalla strike, workers at three other large textile factories and two cement factories had held stoppages and railway employees had briefly blockaded the Cairo-Alexandria train line backed by a go-slow by Cairo metro drivers.

And the sit-in by the postal workers, who are calling for fixed term contracts, is one among hundreds of other smaller-scale actions by workers ranging from rubbish collectors to bakers and poultry workers to Suez Canal employees which have also been reported in the Egyptian media.

Privatization fears

In some cases workers fear that privatisation will bring job cuts and the loss of fringe benefits.

The government points to the fruits of its reforms – increased economic growth and foreign investment – and stresses that training workers and creating new jobs are priorities.

But with inflation at 12.3%, according to the IMF, and the gap between rich and poor growing, many at the bottom of the financial heap say they are yet to feel the benefits.

The Mahalla workers have also turned their sights on the General Federation of Trade Unions – a body which is dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party and which is supposed to represent the interests of Egypt’s labourers.

Angered by its refusal to back their strike action, they submitted their resignations to the organisation and began calling for an independent union.

But the body’s General Secretary, Ibrahim al-Azhary, dismisses the criticisms: “This labour union is from every party – Wafd, Tagammu, leftist, everybody – it’s not a government thing. But if we want to negotiate with the government we have to have a good relationship with them.”

‘Wide social base’

However, Mr Beinin, a historian with a specialism in Egyptian labour issues, says that the General Federation of Trade Unions plays a key role in mobilising workers’ support for the government – for example by bussing them to polling stations on election days.

Opposition to it is therefore “an important political challenge to the regime”, he says.

Although riot police surrounded some of the bigger strikes and prevented Mahalla workers from boarding a train to join a protest in Cairo – and a small-scale workers’ rights NGO has been closed down – strikes have not been broken up by force.

This is in stark contrast to the sometimes heavy-handed treatment of pro-democracy protesters from the Kifaya movement.

Their protests have waned in the last year as government crackdowns against opposition leaders, dwindling US pressure for reform and the passing of constitutional reforms condemned by human rights groups have taken their toll.

“For all that Kifaya did do, the social base was for the most part limited to urban intellectuals. That’s just not enough to make any big change in Egypt,” says Mr Beinin.

But the labour protests are different, he says.

“Nobody can say that these people are influenced by some foreign agenda, human rights or other ideas the regime doesn’t like. These are people who are as Egyptian as you get, they are the salt of the earth.”

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