Labour Day protests in Tahrir Square

Sherif Tarek , Tuesday 1 May 2012

A new trade unions law is the key demand on 2012 May Day demonstration, as well as other as yet unfulfilled labour rights

Egyptian workers
Egyptian workers (photo: Mai Shaheen)

On May Day, Tuesday, a few hundred protested in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the 2011 uprising, and surrounding areas. The main demand was for a new trade unions law.

A march set off from Qasr El-Aini Street, leading to Tahrir Square, toured the once grassy central island and settled in front of the Mogamma, the largest governmental administrative building in Egypt, located in Tahrir.

Presidential hopefuls Khaled Ali, a renowned lawyer who has long pushed for labour rights, and Hamdeen Sabbahi, a Nasserist opposition figure, were among the public figures at the protest.

Ali told reporters while in Tahrir Square that a trade unions law that guarantees the independence of labour unions and the freedom of workers to establish and join them is a priority, "as are drastic amendments to the labour law that would guarantee workers their rights."

He added: "The fight [for labour rights] is still ongoing; workers are still suffering injustices. A clear example of that is that the constituent assembly [which is tasked with drafting the new constitution] does not include workers although they were the fuel of the revolution."

Nationwide labour strikes late in last year's 18-day uprising are widely believed to have contributed to the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011.

Kamal Abu Eita, head of the Independent Union of Real Estate Tax Agency Employees, and veteran leftist activist Kamal Khalil were among the marchers. The Revolutionary Socialists also took part in the march.

Apart from a new trade unions law, the implementation of a minimum wage which is one of the revolution's as yet unmet demands, was a key demand. For instance, a protester held aloft a placard that read, "We want a worker pay that shall be enough for a whole month."

Another one deplored the fact that Ahmed Abdul Zaher, a former member of the now-dismantled National Democratic Party (NDP) of Mubarak, was appointed as the labour union chief.   

In addition to the march, which set off at midday amid hot sunny weather, protesters from the Tourism and Hotels Workers Coalition rallied near the Six of October Bridge (a 5-10 minute walk from Mogamma) mainly to demand fixed contracts and higher wages for those who work in the hospitality industry.

"We do not have fixed salaries; our pay depends only a 12 percent charge imposed on hotel services and goods; while they [businessmen] are making millions," Abdel Fatah Abdel Halim, a member of the Tourism Workers Syndicate, told Ahram Online. "This law was introduced by former Mubarak prime minister, Atef Ebeid, and is still active until now."

In addition to the slogans focused on labour rights, several protesters occasionally repeated the renowned chant, "down, down with military rule" through microphones, referring to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which assumed power on a supposed temporary basis after Mubarak's ouster.

Early in its interim tenure, the SCAF was seen by the public in the wake of the uprising as the "protector of the revolution," taking the side of the people against the autocratic Mubarak regime.

As the months passed, however, many activists increasingly saw the country's military rulers as an extension of the ousted regime, blaming the armed forces for failing to fulfil the chief demands of the uprising, including labour rights, and for attacking revolutionaries and protesters.

Last year's May Day, the first one after the revolution, saw several thousands of workers head to Tahrir Square. However, with some "celebrating the revolution" and others demanding labour rights, the event was marred. On the same day at the official Federation for Trade Unions, about 2000 workers demonstrated as some of them even attempted to break in, demanding that the federation is dismantled.

Fast forward a year, Khaled Ramadan, one of the demonstrators who works at the South Cairo Electricity Company, told Ahram Online, "We need fair salaries and benefits for all workers, better working conditions and job opportunities … We cannot do anything except for staging demonstrations to demand our rights."

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