On Labour Day, Egypt workers still far from settling accounts

Ahmed Feteha, Tuesday 1 May 2012

Sixteen months since the uprising, Egyptian labour has won new freedoms and extra pay but there's still a long way to go in achieving true social justice, say activists

Public transportation workers
Public transit workers down tools during their September 2011 strike (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Can a single event change the lives of millions of people? 

Egyptian workers hoped that the country's 25 January popular uprising would end years of what they called inequality and mistreatment. Nearly a year and a half later they're still waiting for the much-hailed revolution to bear fruit.
On Tuesday, sixteen leftist parties and workers' groups issued a list of 16 demands for change, marking the second Labour Day since president Hosni Mubarak was forced from office.
Their demands are familiar and long predate 2011's upheaval; a raise of the country's minimum monthly wage to LE1,500, extending social insurance to cover all Egyptians and a reform of social insurance.
Despite a year of political drama and a raft from promises from the country's new politicians, leaders of Egypt's labour movement believe little on the ground has changed.
"[The political discourse] has changed and we were able to realise some gains, but I can't say we got we want," Ali Fatouh, a leader of the workers independent syndicate at Egypt's Public Transportation Authority (PTA) told Ahram Online.
PTA workers have been staging protests and strikes since 2007. In the wake of last year's uprising this campaign finally bore fruit -- after a wave of work stoppages and tough negotiations with the government, workers finally saw a revision of their wages.
But while their financial situation may have seen marginal improvements, they say other, more sinister, practices of the Mubarak era live on.
Fatouh says that workers continue to be hassled by Egypt's National Security forces, the substitute -- and supposedly reformed -- version of the Ministry of Interior's infamous state securities division. The latter was a major tool the Mubarak regime used to keep workers, students, media, and NGOs in line.
"They haven’t retrieved their full power yet but names of labour activists are still collected and these workers still don’t feel safe," Faouth complains.
Others, however, say the Egyptian security apparatus' iron grip over labour has loosened after the uprising, giving grounds for hope.
One worker at a sugar factory in Qena, Upper Egypt, told Ahram Online that his colleagues would never have dared protest before last January. 
"The police became much weaker after 25 January. Now they do not do what they used to do," he said, suggesting the change in circumstances was giving workers courage to pursue their demands.
The one demand they can rally around is simple: 'social justice'
For Fatouh, social justice means a wage structure that gives equal pay to all workers with comparable jobs.
"How come a bus driver at the PTA get LE1,000 a month while a driver for Egypt Air [the state-owned air carrier] gets LE5,000 for the same job and same conditions?" he asks.
There have been some moves in this direction. In mid-2011, Egypt's military rulers set a monthly minimum wage of LE700 for workers in the public sector.
They later placed a wage cap of LE35,000 per month for public employees in some positions.
Private sector workers, meanwhile, will also get a minimum of LE700 per month in 2012 via complex system of top-ups and allowances. The scheme is due to be rediscussed later this year.
But while these changes seem a significant step in Egyptian labour legislation, they have failed to appease Egyptian workers.
"What tools does the government have to enforce the minimum wage rate on enterprises? Not much," says Mohamed Trabelsi, workers' activities specialist at the Cairo office of the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Implementing the new wage rates is a tough job, not only due to the infamous complexity of Egypt's bureaucracy but also because of the sprawling nature of the country's informal economy.
Statistics suggest that over 35 percent of Egypt's labour is working in vulnerable jobs, lacking social insurance, health insurance and unionisation. As much of three-quarters of Egypt's private labourers may be the informal sector, according to some estimates.
A near-complete lack of regulation for the informal economy obviously make it unlikely to comply with any minimum wage decisions made by the government. 
There are ways around this, say experts, but they will take time.
"Egypt can start by integrating informal employees into syndicates and unions where they can subscribe to insurance schemes and receive benefits," Trabelsi suggests.
Even unions have been no guarantee that Egyptian workers' rights would be taken care of. Before  the uprising, such organisations were state-sponsored and extremely restricted in their activities.
Change came tantalisingly close in 2011, when Egypt looked like enacting a trade unions law guaranteeing the independence of labour unions and the freedom of workers to establish and join them. This law, however, was abruptly frozen after a cabinet reshuffle in July 2011.
This seeming reluctance on the part of Egypt's rulers to approve independent trade unions is undermining any attempts to write a new, more socially, just contract between workers and employers, says Trabelsi.
Even the election of a post-Mubarak, and supposedly 'revolutionary' parliament, saw no progress in establishing pro-labour legislations, activists complain.
"The majority of MPs do not care about these issues," said Kamal Abu Aita, an MP and prominent labour activist, explaining that the Egyptian labour movement wants a complete shake-up in 'unjust' legislation.
Corporate laws, including those governing taxes, take the side of business-owners over workers, Abu Aita says.
"Corporations get tax and customs breaks while workers are taxed on every penny they are meant to receive," Abu Aita complains. "This has to change."
Egypt's tax regime is often criticised for favouring those who receive higher incomes. 
Sales tax, which is regressive by nature, makes up close to 40 percent of total government tax revenue. Tax on corporate revenues became flat in 2004 while personal income tax rates varied from 10 to 20 percent. A modification introduced in 2011 raised the rate to 25 per cent for those earning over LE10 million (about $1.6 million) a year.
Despite his frustration, Abu Aita is full of praise for the impact last January's uprising had on raising awareness among workers. 
"The labour movement is maturing at a very fast rate. Now workers are not hesitant to challenge the authority and demand their rights," he says.
And so it is this May Day, when Egypt's workers will once again take to the streets in their latest attempt to win that elusive goal: social justice.
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