Egypt's workers in struggle over wages and conditions

The same labour movement that knocked Hosni Mubarak from his presidency is locked in a stalemate with the country's largest businesses over labour rights that are not being enforced.

A worker in the production area of the Cleopatra Ceramic factory in Ain El Sokhna, Egypt on Monday, July 30, 2012.  The Cleopatra Ceramic factory has recently reopened after workers went on strike.  (Ted Nieters)    Ted Nieters for The National
Powered by automated translation

CAIRO// Almost 18 months after Egypt's revolution started, the same labour movement that knocked Hosni Mubarak from his presidency is locked in a stalemate with the country's largest businesses over labour rights that are not being enforced.

Newly emboldened, thousands of Egyptian labourers representing the textile, ceramics and gold mining sectors have demanded higher pay and better working conditions in nationwide strikes.

The interim government has failed to enforce a proper labour law in line with international standards, which is prolonging the same work conditions labourers lived under in the former regime, unionists and international labour union organisations argue. But the heads of factories facing renewed strikes say they have been caught in the political turmoil of the uprising.

"It's disappointing. Our employees are paid far above the average wage in Egypt and the terms and conditions of employment in Egypt are very good," said Josef El Raghy, the chairman of Egypt's biggest gold miner, Centamin, which has had to shut down its Sukari mine twice in the past year because of labour unrest.

"They've been using the revolution to try to increase their own remuneration but that doesn't deter us from our plans here," Mr El Raghy said.

The company, which is also listed on the London Stock Exchange, has in recent weeks faced daily estimated losses of US$1.5 million (Dh5.5m) and dismissed 29 workers involved in strikes, according to newspaper reports.

Activists are pitted against the government over delays in fully implementing a labour law drafted last year by the former labour minister Ahmed El Borai. The legislation guarantees both a minimum wage and the right of unions to organise independently of the state or any political party.

It ushered in a new democratic labour movement under the emerging Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions.

But the overhang of the all-powerful Egyptian Trade Union Federation, the industrial wing of Mr Mubarak's now disbanded National Democratic Party, and Egypt's main state trade union for decades, has restricted strike action and disciplined radical trade union activists. "Many employers in Egypt are still recognising the old trade union organisation and in most cases refusing to deal with new organisations because it is more complicated," said Ben Moxham of the UK Trades Union Congress.

Coupled with a lack of experience in the new trade unions, the situation has resulted in "an incredible amount of frustrations because [labourers] don't have laws or proper system to bargain with employers", he said.

Pressure is now mounting on president Mohammed Morsi to make good on promises of implementing a minimum monthly wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds (Dh725).

Egypt's interim government granted public servants a monthly minimum wage of 700 pounds in June but only permanent government employees benefited, not labourers at state-owned companies or temporary workers.

The fear is Mr Morsi is merely racking up quick wins for media consumption as part of a "first 100-days in office" scorecard rather than building strong foundations.

Khaled Ali, an Egyptian lawyer who has successfully lobbied for a higher minimum wage and ran for president in the elections, said the state was likely to regain the "centrality of the union" and take it out of the hands of labourers once again.

"There will be a war, probably not an exposed war but rather a concealed war against independent unions," he said.

twitter: Follow and share our breaking business news. Follow us

iPad users can read the digital edition of business section as it was printed via our e-reader app. Click here