Egypt's workers find their voice

Faced with increasing hardship as a result of free market reforms and a rising cost of living, labour groups are banding together.

Egyptian Ministry of Justice experts shout slogans during a protest outside the ministry in Cairo, Egypt, July 19, 2009. The experts, who inform judges at the ministry, have conducted a sit-in for the past two weeks to demand better pay and working conditions. Experts were arriving by bus from all over Egypt throughout the day to join the protest, which continues 24 hours a day. Labor unrest is widespread throughout Egypt. *** Local Caption ***  HPprotest02.jpg
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On the steps outside the ministry of justice in Cairo, several men lounge in the shade, taking refuge from the heat of the midday sun, while others read newspapers or straighten their suit jackets hanging on the stair rails. Their sit-in is now in its 19th day and has lost much of the excitement that accompanied it, but Khalid Fateh Ibrahim, 34, is as determined as ever to stay until the demands of his colleagues are met.

"When the ministry solves our problem we will go home, even if it takes two years," said Mr Ibrahim, a technical expert working for the courts, mopping his brow. "We want to live a dignified life. Some are pressured to take bribes to live with dignity but because we are honest we are sitting here on the steps to demand our rights instead of doing things that are against our conscience." Dozens of his colleagues nodded in agreement and some listed their complaints: they could barely feed their families on the salaries they earn as technical experts who work in the courts; their offices were overcrowded; they were given no respect.

"Our health insurance is bad, it's terrible," said Mohamed Sayed, an agricultural expert who works at the Ministry of Justice. "My son last month had his arm broken and I had to pay 3,000 [Egyptian] pounds [Dh1,976] and I only make 1,000 pounds with overtime." Egypt is witnessing an unprecedented wave of labour strikes, unusual in a country better known for its suppression of dissent than freedom to protest. A combination of free market reforms that began in 2004 and an increased cost of living that has been exacerbated by the global economic crisis is forcing people on to the streets, from civil servants, such as the 3,000 justice ministry employees, to factory workers - most famously the weavers and spinners in Mahalla el Kubra - to farmers, tax collectors and even the employees at the state circus. In the past five years an estimated 1.5 million people have protested in the worst labour unrest Egypt has faced for half a century.

In every case, workers are circumventing the only legal union, Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which represents 2.5 million people, and organising the demonstrations on their own. In a country where any dissent is quickly crushed by state security and police forces, such grassroots activity is remarkable, and even more so is that they seem to be showing signs of success. Some analysts suggest this is because the protests do not have a political agenda or challenge the government of Hosni Mubarak, the president. Others believe it is because the government needs to placate its workforce if it is to encourage overseas investment.

"The government has used brutal force but it is one thing to confront 200 middle-class protesters in downtown Cairo and another to confront millions of people all over the country," said Hossam el Hamalawy, a blogger and labour activist. "You can isolate some of the middle class but you cannot contain the strike wave." Between July 2008 and April 2009, state subsidies increased by 31.5 per cent and public sector salaries by 19.7 per cent, according to Anne Mariel Peters of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A draft labour law is being drawn up by groups from across the political spectrum, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Kifiyah, the secular movement, said Sabir Abul Fotouh, a member of the Brotherhood and an MP from Alexandria. The law will be presented to parliament. "This regime failed to introduce economic development and failed to inject real investment in sectors of industry," said Mr Fotouh. Some of the demonstrations have been well organised, such as the property tax collectors, he said. Indeed, many of the leaders of the sit-ins have said they were emboldened by the property tax collectors, thousands of whom marched 24km to the Cabinet office and slept on the streets for 10 days in 2007 before the government agreed to give them a 325 per cent pay rise and set up a social fund for retired workers or their relatives if they died.

In a run-down building in downtown Cairo, Kamal abu Aita, the leader of the property tax collectors' strike, held court among a group of union activists as he chain smoked and offered his advice. "We're different because we're the stick of the government in a society suffering from poverty. We are hated because we're tax collectors," he said, with a note of irony. "But we were successful. Our wages before were 300 pounds a month average. Now it is average 1,000 a month."

A man who sat next to him, from the ministry of education, representing its administrative employees, listened carefully as Mr abu Aita described how they did it. "Different means with which we reached our colleagues, and let's just say this new invention of the mobile phone helped us," Mr abu Aita said cautiously. "We were able to gather our colleagues all over Egypt, 50,000 of them. The government tried to infiltrate us, bribe us, we were offered privileges and positions - they tried all of the means to abort and divide us but it didn't work."

One of the keys to success was solidarity among the tax collectors. "We slept on the street. There was no building to take refuge in, no services, no toilets, no utilities, any place open. Each governorate sent food they are known for, so mish came from the south," he added, referring to a yoghurt dish. The most significant development however, was that the property tax collectors formed their own independent union to protect their new concessions and bargain in future. Many workers complain the official union is too close to the government and discourages them from making demands on the state.

"The official union doesn't do anything for us," said Fawzy Abdel Fattah, leader of the administrative workers at the ministry of education. "There is a link between the new, independent movements in Egypt. There is an exchange of experiences; we are sitting together and talking. We all know each other because we are part of the leftist movement." He said employees at his ministry had been promised a 250 pound allowance and 100 per cent salary increase but had not received it yet. "We want computer training and other reforms as well but we haven't got it," he said, stubbing out his cigarette. "We don't know what to do."

But he added they were not against capitalism. "The government is moving towards capitalist economy but not allowing us to move towards change. We're not concerned with capitalism or socialism - Egypt just needs liberalisation. But the workers are not getting their rights." Mr abu Aita told the group they would have to work hard before they saw any results. "Before we started it was pleas and petitions to the president; we have them in large plastic bags we can show you. Nothing can be achieved or given in this country on a silver platter. It was only through pressure."

Back at the ministry of justice, the employees seem to have taken in those lessons. About 40 men who remain take turns going home because they fear if they all leave the police may prevent them from returning. "We promised it would only be a sit-in, not a riot," said Ahmed Hosni, 27. "At night they allow the stray dogs to wander here to scare us." Mohamed Sayed handed out cans of Coca-Cola. "Everything we do is through our own efforts." He looked at the apartment blocks across the street. "No help from there. Egyptians keep to themselves."