Labour protests heated up in front of Egypt’s Cabinet offices on Thursday morning as doctors, Unionaire workers, tok-tok drivers and Public Transportation Authority (PTA) workers all raised banners demanding better working conditions and fixed wages and benefits. With ongoing nationwide strikes in multiple sectors, many commentators are pointing to the apparent passivity of both Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s Cabinet and the ruling military council.
Many participants in Thursday’s protest said that nothing had changed since the February ouster of Egypt’s longstanding president Hosni Mubarak. The ongoing protests are evidence of this dissatisfaction, awakening memories of 2008’s multi-sector protests on the very same street.
The doctor’s protest
“The government is intentionally ignoring doctors’ demands. What’s more, our situation is regressing rather than progressing. This is a very frustrating state to be in,” Dr Mona Mina, head of the Doctors Without Rights movement and labour organiser, stated while distributing flyers entitled, “Doctors are between the ministry’s hammer and the syndicate’s anvil.”
Dr Amr Helmy, current minister of health, took part in previous protests, according to Mina, but now offers up the same excuses that his predecessors once did. Mina pointed to Helmy’s refusal to push for 200 per cent productivity bonuses for doctors, which were promised to all other public-sector workers.
“We tell Dr Amr Helmy that if you’re unable to purge the ministry’s corrupt leadership, improve the health budget, better doctors’ working conditions and the funding of hospitals, or even fix salaries, then it would be more dignified for you to resign and go back to being a member of the opposition, where you might better serve the medical sector,” Mina stated. “Your resignation may be a wakeup call for the health system to finally change.”
The health budget is a major concern for protesting doctors, whose numbers reached the hundreds by noon on Thursday. The health budget currently equals one third of the interior ministry’s budget following the uprisings earlier this year, according to Mina.
“It’s as if we hadn’t had a revolution. Even if we’re a poor country, the nation’s afflicted deserve 15 per cent of the overall budget as is stipulated in international agreements to which Egypt is signatory,” she said. “Health and education are pillars of development. If our economy is in recession, we must focus on what builds the country and its economy.”
When asked about the effectiveness of the Doctors’ Syndicate in realising doctors’ demands, Mina stated that the syndicate had not played a role for years, but that there were hopes they might be able to gain a majority in October’s syndicate elections. “If there are any fraudulent practices in the upcoming elections, however, we will consider setting up an independent union. Until then, there will be endless protests,” movement leaders stated, adding that they planned to up the stakes and call for mass resignations if their grievances were not addressed.
The Unionaire protest
Unionaire workers from several plants have been protesting outside Parliament since Sunday, according to company worker Abdel Hamid Said. Hundreds of workers occupied both sides of the street, keeping to the pavements so as to avoid disrupting traffic. “On Tuesday we tried to return to work, but the management ordered bus drivers not to pick us up,” Said stated. When workers eventually arrived they found signs taped to all Unionaire plants announcing their closure due to strikes. Security guards, meanwhile, surrounded the perimeter.
The management then pressured some workers into tendering their resignations. Others were surprised to find their names on a list of sacked employees. The local police chief, for his part, refused several times to file a report, according to Said. As of Thursday, 30 workers had been arbitrarily dismissed without receiving any form of compensation.
Tensions rose noticeably last week after a number of employees in the company’s refrigeration and air conditioning plant were transferred without cause to a melding factory, Said noted. “This is unacceptable. You can’t transfer an employee specialised in one field to a field he has no knowledge of,” he said. “So we protested and the management decided enough is enough and sacked them.”
“Management warned that anyone who spoke up would share the same fate,” another company worker stated. Bahgat Ahmed Attiya, who’s worked for the company for 15 years, chimed in: “There have been no changes since the revolution. Three fourths of [Unionaire Chairman] Mohammed Fathy’s company rests on government land, which was granted with former trade and industry minister Rachid Mohammed Rachid’s financial backing. He gave the company 56,000 feddans of land for free.”
In order to receive this financial backing, the government required that Unionaire hire new employees. Attiya asserted that no such hiring ever occurred. Instead, he said, the company fired thousands of employees before simply rehiring them, neatly avoiding ten years of taxes.
Unionaire is an Egyptian joint stock company, and workers are therefore allotted certain profit shares. But workers say they have never received any. In 2010, company employees were supposed to receive some LE8 million in profit sharing. But, according to Said, company officials claimed that LE6 million of this had been spent on everything from their weekly productivity bonuses to boxes of halva, a traditional sweet traditionally distributed on religious holidays.
Workers also complained of the passivity displayed by the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). “ETUF officials drank tea with us, said ‘you’re all doing fine,’ and then left,” workers bitterly recalled.
The PTA protest
“We’ve come here to ask the authority for our 200 per cent productivity bonuses and request that it also be incorporated into the Ministry of Transportation,” stated Ahmed Mahmoud Ahmed, a member of the Independent Union of Transportation Workers.
A small group of bus drivers marched up and down Cairo’s Maglis Al-Shaab Street in front of Parliament, holding signs aloft and chanting. They were there to show their support for their fellow “suffering workers.”
A general strike by PTA workers kicked off on Wednesday after workers from 20 of the capital’s 24 public bus depots joined their colleagues from El-Mazalat garage in the Shubra district who had launched a partial strike days earlier. Ticket collectors, bus drivers and mechanics are demanding improved working conditions and better salaries. Workers are also protesting the lack of medical insurance.
“Before Ramadan, PTA President Mona Mostafa promised us that by 1 September we would all receive adequate safeguards to ensure that we get the coverage we’ve paid for. But so far, none of these promises have materialised,” said Ismail Mohamed Sayed, a member of the Independent Union of Transportation Workers.
Workers have vowed to return to the Parliament building on Saturday morning if the government continues to ignore their demands.
The tok-tok protest
A small group of tok-tok drivers from Cairo’s rundown Al-Basateen district assembled, almost unnoticed, near the protesting doctors. They were all quite young and appeared new to the protest game. They complain that police have recently begun confiscating tok-toks in Maadi, Dar Al-Salam and several other districts of the capital.
“We just want to earn a living, but the police have taken our tok-toks and say we must pay LE700 to get them back. They take our money, then accuse us of bribery. Yesterday they threw a driver in jail for six months. What do they want us to do? Turn to stealing and drug dealing?” asked Amr, a young driver.
Protesting tok-tok drivers’ only demand is that their vehicles and money be returned to them.
“The governor of Cairo has purportedly issued a decision to confiscate all tok-toks from the streets, and police have been seizing them for four days now,” the young driver said. “We’ve been here protesting ever since, and have no plans to leave until we get our tok-toks and money back.”