Egyptian workers see post-revolution gains, but continue struggle for rights

Ayat Al-Tawy, Wednesday 1 May 2013

This Labour Day, Egyptian workers of varying backgrounds speak of limited victories in ongoing struggle for rights – while acknowledging long road that still lies ahead

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Despite fighting for change during the 2011 revolution, Egypt's workers say they continue to suffer from a longstanding stranglehold by the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation. Consequently, over the course of the last two years, workers have started to form a large number of independent democratic unions and federations.

Ahram Online marks the occasion of Labour Day on May 1 by meeting with a host of influential workers and independent trade union leaders from across the country's most vital sectors, to see how and what they are fighting for.

Hosni Ahmed, 40, a plasterer and a leading member of Alexandria 's Independent Tradesmen and Craftsmen Union

Hosni Ahmed
Hosni Ahmed
Hosni Ahmed (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Both self-employed tradesmen and day labourers in Egypt are entirely marginalised. Following the revolution, we started to form a large number of independent unions for both sectors.

Yes, there is a state-sponsored syndicate but it is totally ineffectual. Striking evidence of this is that when we workers get injured, there is no one to cover our costs. When someone dies, their families do not receive pensions.

The desperate plight of workers in Egypt can be traced back to the 1952 Revolution. A social affairs ministry [now called the Ministry of Social Solidarity] was then set up under former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, which caters merely for the public-sector workers. Since 1952, casual workers haven’t had a protector.

Because of such a sense of insecurity about what tomorrow might bring, many have gone as far as to resort to crime or drug addiction. 

What's more, workmen suffer from a social stigma. People look down on them. Even their kids develop inferiority complex. It’s shameful to say what their fathers do for a living.

Following the January 25 revolution, we filed a lawsuit with Egyptian State Lawsuits Authority to amend the unjust, inactive Ministry of Manpower and Immigration's bylaw regulating temporarily-employed workmen. There must be a system regulating the work of self-employed tradesmen, as people are particularly concerned with the honesty and quality of their work.

In our union, we have developed a comprehensive draft bill entitled "Restructuring Craftsmen." It aims to improve the conditions of all workers and to tackle their problems.  We seek to belong to a supportive structure that provides plumbers, barbers, tailors and all who work in such jobs with the basic rights of health insurance, pensions and reparation for injuries.

In our draft bill, we proposed that workers pay taxes and apply for licenses to practice a profession.  The licenses issued at present by the manpower ministry are invalid due to the lack of qualification by the examiners themselves. We want real licenses, real exams, an authentic level of skill and a clearly-identified profession on our ID cards.

According to statistics, out of the country's 27 million workers, 17 million are casual day labourers who have no governing body in the country. Even the unemployment estimate in Egypt is not accurate. Casual labour is not included in the unemployment numbers because they are not classified under any profession.

All what we ask the government for is to put us on a par with other employees.

Refaat Arafat, 44, a ticket window clerk and head of the Independent Union of Egyptian Metro Workers

Refaat Arafat
Refaat Arafat
Refaat Arafat (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

After the revolution, we decided to make our voices heard. The Cairo Metro had been crumbling and incurring substantial losses. Breakdowns had been on the rise and passengers were exposed to a lot of hazards. The management was tight-fisted towards workers, maintenance and everything. We knew it was the tipping point, that we had lost our rights.

It was at this point that we started to repeatedly call for the dismissal of the management.  When they refused, we staged a big strike in November 2012.

Our basic demands are the same before and after the revolution. The stubborn authorities are still the same: they don’t want workers to speak out.

Our longstanding demands include: officially having Saturday off in accordance with a ministerial decision of 2006, while those who work that day must be compensated. We want to reduce our official working hours…and secure a meal allowance as well as equality in financial incentives.

We have also been calling for the independence of the Metro from the bureaucracy of the Railways Authority. For many years, the Metro service has been going from bad to worse. This is a deliberate ploy: as the state of the Metro worsens, the authorities intend to trigger calls for privatisation by both workers and the public opinion alike.

In 2007, the deteriorating level of maintenance, coupled with calls for privatisation by passengers and anger from the workers, gave the Railways Authority an excuse to sign a contract with an affiliate inward investment company (the Egyptian Company for Metro Operation and Management).

Under the contract, the company pays an annual LE32 million to the authority – notwithstanding the Metro's daily revenue of LE2 million - and takes charge of the operation and workers' pay and insurance.

In the first couple of years, they tightened the belt in terms of maintenance, pay and the overall expenditure at the expense of workers' rights, so that they could fallaciously claim they were making profits.

Soon after, there was no maintenance, no spare parts, trains were decaying. It was at that point when workers realised that the company sought to destroy the whole operation.

The ultimate solution to the public and the workers alike was, and still is, to make the body affiliated to the government. It is a national security matter. The body controls three million passengers a day. We cannot privatise it.

A rational management could find a million ways to generate substantial income rather than just relying on the price of ticket. We have a lot of feasible propositions: making advertisement bids for each line rather than granting a monopoly to one giant, or utilising our internal broadcast radio and even the tickets as a mode of advertising. We know we put passengers through a daily torture trip.

Ahmed Youssef, 28, a forklift driver at Cleopatra Ceramics - Suez plant

Ahmed Youssef
Ahmed Youssef

During the days before the revolution, nobody dared to speak out against the management. Mohamed Abu El-Enein [owner of the Cleopatra Group], who was a figure from [Mubarak's] National Democratic Party, used to use State Security Intelligence to intimidate us.

In 2006 some of the workers of the Suez plant staged a three-day sit-in to call for a pay rise. We were making as little as LE300 a month. In the aftermath, some were arrested by state security, some were made redundant and other strike leaders were posted to quarry sites or other remote plants in [Upper Egyptian governorates] New Valley and Aswan.

When you watch this happen to your colleagues because they demand their rights, you just keep your mouth shut for fear of losing your own livelihood. The same scenario repeated itself in 2009. Up until the January 25 revolution, we had been living under great suppression, slavery.

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, we staged our first sit-in in February. Through the then-ruling armed forces' mediation, we put forward a range of longstanding demands: a rise in salary, share of the company's profits, meal allowance, hazard pay and late-shift allowance. By April 2011, all that we procured was a LE500 pay rise that we received in two parts: LE400 in April and LE100 in December.

Our labour action started with the formation of an independent trade union. Its membership included almost 70 percent of the plant's staff. Following the revolution, we legalised our status: our union has become affiliated with the General Union of Building and Wood, an offshoot of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation.

Early in March 2012, following a number of futile meetings that sometimes lasted for 20 hours with the former investment minister and military leaders, we staged our biggest sit-in at the Suez plant, during which we reiterated our legal demands.

We signed a deal with Abul El-Enein in the same month, with articles and proposed meeting dates that had he himself had written.

When he kept dragging his feet and was reluctant to keep to the meetings and promises he set himself, we began a sit-in on 20 June 2012.

By 3 July, all the Suez plant's workers entered a strike that was also joined by the staff of the 10th Ramadan factory. Production was not halted. We merely stopped the loading of buses to bar goods from leaving the plant.

In response, El-Enein shut down the plant, stopped providing buses that transported us to the workplace and rushed to tell the media that he was going to liquidate his assets and end his business in Egypt once and for all: a mere propaganda exercise.  It was a subtle threat to the national economy, I'd say.

During the time of the closure, we met with [newly elected] President Mohamed Morsi at the presidential palace, who pledged to send us delegations from the presidency, investment and manpower ministries and the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority.

Nothing happened and instead we went back to work on 26 July empty-handed.

Abu El-Enein filed a lawsuit to nullify the agreement with us on the grounds that he signed it under duress; then there are the other ongoing lawsuits, charging us with blackmail, insult, and theft.

We filed five other cases against him for violating the agreement's terms and conditions.  All cases are still pending.

Ever since then, things have not really moved forward. Even when the government upheld the 15 percent annual pay rise in July of last year, it was not until February that we received it. I'm talking about an equivalent of LE115-150 per annum (approximately US$ 16-22) extra given to each employee.

Ahmed Shalaby, 39, an employee at a Port Said ready-made garments company and a leading member of the Port Said's Free Investment Zone General Union

Ahmed Shalaby
Ahmed Shalaby
Ahmed Shalaby (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Since the inception of the Port Said Investment Zone 29 years ago, it has never been embraced by the so-called [state-run] trade unions.

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, we, the employees of the Free Investment Zone in Port Said, sprung into action to form a general independent trade union, a move which was fiercely opposed by investors. Some leaders behind such moves were even sacked.

The government was the reason that investors could not accept such an idea.

Prior to the revolution, the 'businessmen' governments taught investors that nothing will get in their way, that all the ministries and concerned entities belong to him and that workers are mere servants.

There are three major landmarks in our labour movement: two major strikes and a negotiation agreement.

The first strike was held by some 4,000 workers from my company in November 2011. All our demands, which included fair annual holidays and share of the company's profits, were answered just one day after the strike.  

Following the favourable outcome of my factory's strike, as many as 12,000 workers in other factories followed suit. Numerous strikes occurred throughout the same month.

With investors partially responding to our demands, up until October 2012, labour action had stopped.

However in October, some 7,000 workers in the free zone went on another strike with financial demands.

A month later, collective negotiations began between the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration and the zone's workers over 13 demands. These discussions are currently ongoing, as only four of the 13 have been met.

Before the [2011] revolution, we did not have the same level of awareness and competence. We have now learnt key lessons, as have the investors and businessmen in Port Said. They are now willing to sit with us at the negotiating table.

We have become a partner in the production process alongside investors.

Over the past period we have made headway: had our holiday quota raised, especially for those working in hazardous jobs, received a basic salary rise as well as the 15 percent annual raise in line with the public-sector workers. We set up a nursery and a medical complex in the zone.

Out of the investment zone's 37,000 employees, 40 percent are employed from outside the city [of Port Said] while 10 per cent are foreigners.

One of our major demands is to have no less than 65 percent of the zone's employment come from the city of Port Said and no less than 80 per cent of labourers in the Suez Canal Development Project originate from the canal cities.

The current Law of Investment Guarantees and Incentives must be scrapped. Out of its 120 articles only one article touches on workers. We demand a minimum wage of LE1,500 per month and we insistent that the maximum wage is upheld too.

Hend El-Saied, 30, an accountant at the Local Development Ministry's Information Centre - Sharqiya

Hend El-Saied
Hend El-Saied
Hend El-Saied

Our struggle began with the inception of the centre in 2002. When first hired, the centre's 32,000 employees across the state accepted contracts without simple rights, no incentives, health insurance, pensions, nothing at all.

Our salaries were as little as LE130 (approximately $18) per month. To make things worse, at times we use to get paid every three to four months.

From 2005 all the way to 2009, we had been pressing the ministry for better contracts through protracted behind-the-scenes negotiations. We got empty promises.

By 2009, a nucleus of labour leaders was formed. The dawn of our labour movement was March 2010. We staged a protest in front of the Cabinet building where 3,000 workers took part from Sharqiya, Beni Suef, Cairo and other cities.

Yet again, our demands for better pay and contract terms fell on deaf ears. In the same month, we held a 12-day sit-in outside Egypt's lower house of parliament, the People's Assembly. We returned in mid-April and staged another 18-day sit-in. Given that two thirds of the staff are women, they were the main component of the protests.

All the while, workers' awareness was increasing. In the early days, Mubarak's pictures were held aloft and people were chanting to him. Later, chants turned against the whole government, posters of Mubarak were trampled upon.

We thought there would be changes and so waited until July, the new financial year. Again, nothing at all happened.

By August through October, we held sporadic protests that started to have media coverage at the time and gained much momentum.

The turning point was when we had our first confrontation with the security forces who forcibly dispersed a protest we held in downtown Cairo.

We spoke at a time when all mouths were shut. We knew we would be honoured to die while fighting for our rights rather than die subservient.

In the same month, as many as 15,000 protested outside the Cabinet headquarters. The police were taken by surprise. We had not announced any plans for the day beforehand because of the mounting clampdown. That day saw the first triumph: after four hours, the authorities yielded to our demands.

In November 2011, we signed new contracts with benefits including social insurance and medical insurance.

Following the revolution, we demanded a definite structure in the government budget and to have permanent, rather than one-year renewable, contracts. Our movements were nationwide. 

In the face of mounting pressure, by April 2012 we managed to forge much improved terms of contracts. By then salaries reached LE700 (approx. $100).

Through the year and following repetitive protests and memorandums, we applied to the post-revolution [now-dissolved] People's Assembly. By November 2012, we, all the 32,000 employees, secured permanent contracts. Now we obtain full rights and benefits given to government employees – incentives, medical insurance, and social insurance – without effort.

Yes, it's been 11 years. But now all our demands have been met.

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