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Despite strike ban, Egypt's labour movement could regain momentum

Waad Ahmed , Friday 1 May 2015
A labourer works at a textile mill in Mahalla el-Kubra, about 110 km north of Cairo (File photo: Reuters)

“No celebrations on Labour Day so long as we continue to live in worry,” chanted workers at the Torah cement factory earlier this week in one of several recent strikes signalling a possible return to the organised labour movement that was at the heart of Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

However, labour organisers fear a crackdown is looming following a final verdict by a high level court banning strikes by civil servants.

“As none of the workers’ problems have been solved, protests are regaining momentum, despite slowing last year,” Fatma Ramadan, a labour activist, told Ahram Online.

The first three months of this year saw more than 300 protests by workers in factories, teachers, healthcare employees, drivers and others, according to data compiled by local NGO Democracy Meter.

Unsettled movement

“The labour movement is part of society; its retreat was part of a wider retraction of collective movements, political and social,” Moustafa Bassiouny, a researcher on labour issues in Egypt and industrial correspondent, told Ahram Online.

In reaction to the overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, sporadic violence dominated the political scene and labour activity decreased.

“Since July 2013 there has been a state of polarisation,” Bassiouny said.

But the prolific labour movement, which played a key role in bringing down the Muslim Brotherhood regime, was also a main force in driving the uprising in 2011.

In April 2008, thousands of workers at the Mahalla weaving and textile factory demonstrated, demanding a minimum wage of LE1,200 per month for all Egyptian workers.

Despite the suppression of the protest, it was seen later on by analysts as a forerunner of the popular uprising in 2011.

Forms of demonstrations have decreased because protesters were worried they would be accused of supporting the Brotherhood, but as workers’ problems have not been solved, strikes have begun to regain their momentum and are expected to accelerate further, Ramadan said.

Unmet demands

Last month, Torah cement workers staged a sit-in to demand they receive promised payments of profit shares going back 25 months, Mahmoud Ismail, a member of the committee of the syndicate for Torah cement company workers, told Ahram Online.

Italcementi Group, which owns Torah cement and two other cement companies, realised gross profits of LE833 million in the first nine months of 2014, an increase of 21.4 percent from the same period a year earlier.

Annual salaries in the private sector increased by an average of 7.9 percent in 2013 according to Egypt’s official statistics agency CAPMAS. But annual inflation accelerated to 11.9 percent by December 2013, meaning a drop in real wages.

“Workers’ conditions in the private sector are worse than the public sector because their average salaries are lower than the government and they are more vulnerable to getting sacked,” Ramadan said.

Details on working conditions should be seen in a larger context in which the government’s economic policy is to liberalise the economy and incentivise the private sector to lead to economic growth, Bassiouny said. 

Egypt’s government has announced an ambitious plan to drive growth through private sector investment, with the results assumed to be wider prosperity for all, including the poor.

In the absence of parliament, laws regulating both the work of millions of civil servants, and investment rules, have been issued in the hopes of encouraging investors. 

The government has also issued an amendment to the investment law preventing third parties from challenging contracts made between the government and investors.

The amendment follows court rulings to renationalise state companies that have been sold to the private sector, and would close the door to any further legal challenges to the selling of state-owned companies.

In addition, the ministry of manpower is drafting a new labour law regulating the relationship between employers, employees and trade unions.

But Bassiouny sees that the absence of a review of the previous labour law and an investigation of the reasons why it was never implemented as a methodological problem in drafting a new law.

“The labour bill is a reflection of the balance of powers at the current time. And because the labour movement is in retreat and cannot resist this law, we expect it to be against their interests,” he added.

Looming crackdown

The High Administrative Court ruled on Tuesday that public employees who take part in sit-ins on the job could be punished for impeding the ability of public institutions to deliver services "which constitute a right for citizens."

The court reasoned that sit-ins by civil employees constitute a form of illegal strikes, and must be treated as such.

“The verdict criminalises strikes rather than regulates them…the decision is very dangerous because it sets the stage for future laws criminalising strikes,” human rights lawyer Mohamed Abdel-Aziz told Ahram Online.

It is not yet clear how the court ruling will apply to various labour actions by other public employees across government branches.

Egypt's 2014 constitution enshrines "the right to strike peacefully," but stipulates that the government can issue laws to regulate such actions.

The court said it based its legal opinion on a tenet of Islamic sharia, which stipulates that "warding off harm takes priority over procuring benefits."

The Egyptian constitution stipulates that Islamic sharia is a main source for the formulation of laws and requires that laws not contradict its rules.

“Despite a general retraction in political movements other than those lead by the Brotherhood, the labour movement remains the most resistant, with waves of strikes and protests seen in February 2014 and in the past three months,” Bassiouny said.

“It is not completely coming back -- it’s not like 2008, for example -- but there is resistance and it is possible that the labour movement could take an upward turn,” he added.

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