Egypt hit by partial transport and education strikes

Ahram Online, Sunday 16 Sep 2012

Around 20 universities and several Cairo bus depots down tools on Sunday in uncoordinated labour action aimed at winning new financial concessions

Transport workers during 2011's strike (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Egypt saw a fresh wave of strikes on Sunday as transport and education sector employees downed tools to push for financial and administrative reform.

In separate bouts of industrial action, workers at the Cairo Transportation Authority (CTA) and non-academic staff at universities across Egypt walked off the job.
Bus services ground to a halt at five garages in the capital while 22 others began partial strikes in a bid to force the CTA's attachment to Egypt's Ministry of Transport -- a move, workers say, that will boost their salaries and bonues.
Workers made the same demand during strikes in mid-2011, reaching a compromise agreement with CTA management. That, evidently, has not been enough.
"It is still the same. We want to be attached to the ministry of transportation to enjoy the public sector's pay raises," Ali Fatouh, a leader of the workers independent syndicate at the Cairo Transportation Authority (CTA) told Ahram Online.
CTA workers have not received a 200 per cent pay increase granted to state workers last year, Fatouh claimed. Instead they have had a monthly LE200 rise.
Fatouh also complained that the government was ignoring their demands. 
"Nobody from the government contacted us. This is starting to look like Ahmed Nazif's government," he added, referring to a much-maligned prime minister from the Hosni Mubarak era.
Learning problems
Staffers at around 20 universities across Egypt were also on strike, raising the pressure for broadly similar financial demands.
But while non-teaching staff pushed for revisions to their wage and bonus structures, they also demanded a full-scale shake-up of management.
All heads of the universities' administrative bodies should be fired, they said, and elections held to appoint new ones.
They also demanded representation on university boards, and the removal of consultants who advise management and reportedly receive substantial salaries.
Academic staff have seen pay rises in recent months, leaving many administrative workers feeling left out.
In response to Sunday's strike, management at Cairo University referred labour leaders to a disciplinary committee.
"They try to intimidate us, but our strike will go on for three days then we will escalate it by staging a sit-in in front of the Cabinet [in downtown Cairo]," said Mohamed Abdel  Fattah, media coordinator for the Coalition of University Workers and a member of staff at Cairo University.
Great expectations
Following the early 2011 uprising that unseated president Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian workers have seized the opportunity to address long-standing grievances over pay and conditions.
Long-running strikes, sit-ins and periodic protests have became common events for business officials who have had to rapidly improve their negotiating skills.
But Egypt's state budget deficit of LE170 billion -- equivalent to 11 per cent of GDP -- leaves little room for the government to manoeuvre. 
Also stalling change is Egypt's stulifying and labyrinthal bureaucracy, say commentators.
"For the state to be able to appease the workers, it needs deep-rooted structural adjustment, and this takes time," Mona El-Baradie, political economy professor at Cairo University told Ahram Online. 
"If government has the ability to fulfil workers demands today, will it have the resources to do so next year? No - we will be faced with larger problems."
Egypt has some 6 million state employees whose salaries take up  26 per cent of total state spending. 
Last week, Finance Minister Momtaz El-Said blamed the growth in wage bill by 11 per cent for the surprise surge in 2012/11 deficit. He also claimed labour unrest was responsible for the slowdown in economic activity.
"Why doesn’t the government talk clearly to state employees, providing a timeline for fulfilling  their demands? Most of them relate to changing the ancient pay structure," El-Baradie asks. 
"Everyone knows the government cannot hike wages by 100 per cent right away, but it could be done gradually."
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