After a relative slow-down, Egypt’s labour movement strikes back.
In the last couple of weeks workers’ strikes, sit-ins and protests came back to the surface after a period of calm. The historically rebellious city of Suez, which saw the first intense clashes and casualties during the 25 January revolution, once again took centre stage. Since the start of March, strikes have erupted in places like the Cleopatra Ceramics factory, Maridive, Suez for Fertilizers, as well as in steel and sanitation companies.
The voices of Egypt’s workers have risen after Mubarak’s ouster, but they haven’t always stayed at the same tempo. Since the apogee in September and October with mega strikes among different vital trade groups including public bus drivers, teachers and doctors, in addition to protests in many public and private companies, the movement has slowed down.
Calls by some political forces and activists for a general strike on 11 February, the anniversary of Mubarak’s ouster, did not meet with success among workers – so much so that some suspended their strike so as not to be seen as responding to such calls. “We will be on strike till we gain our rights because it is a fair cause but we are not part of the civil disobedience movement that can be bad for Egypt.
That’s why we suspended our strike today,” Mohamed, one worker from the Egyptian Company for Transporting & Connecting Gas (BUTAGASCO), told Ahram Online that day. Relations between the labour movement and the political uprising in post-revolutionary Egypt have as such been paradoxical. “When calls came from political groups that have no roots among the workers linking the workers’ demands to political demands, workers were worried.
They feel they are used in a battle they don’t understand and without their permission,” explains Hesham Fouad of the Children of the Earth for Human Rights (CEHR), an Egyptian NGO. Fouad also points out that fierce media and official attacks on the call for general strike and civil disobedience has had its effects on workers.
In fact, at moments of political turmoil, workers seem to be intimidated and their movement dims. “Workers can react in two different ways to hot political moments. Either they step back, staying the wave, or they take advantage of the political event to make noise,” believes Saber Barakat, a former trade unionist and an activist, believes.
Many of the workers on strike today like the Maridive, Egyptian Post and Cermica Cleopatra workers among many others have held more than one strike since 25 January 2011. In each case an agreement was made between workers and the administration but never subsequently respected. “In most cases, the workers’ demands are ignored or promises and even official deals are not honoured; that is what brings workers back to action. The demands are the same all year long,” Massoud Omar, a member of the Union of Suez Canal Authority and labour activist, explains.
Workers’ demands are often linked to having permanent contracts, wage increases and fighting corruption, especially in public organisms, as well as wining some rights granted them by law but not by their administration. In SUMED oil port, for instance, some workers have been employed on temporary contracts for more than 30 years.
Workers at the Arab Contractors, one of the leading construction companies in the Middle East and Africa, have been on strike for few days, raising the same demand. While the workers of the Egyptian Post are asking for restructuring the wage system as well as removing of the minister of telecommunications.
In response to the recent wave of protests, the patience of Egypt’s rulers seems to be expiring. As fake, ambiguous promises don’t have the same effect, violence was the answer in many cases. According to Massoud Omar, in Suez, police and army forces used violence in the case of SUMED, National Steel and court workers. SCAF issued an anti-strike law in March 2011, in an attempt to stop the scattered protests – but in vain. “The police and the military couldn’t enforce this law because of the workers resistance. When the number of protesters is considerable, they don’t use force,” Massoud Omar recounts.