"If we had had syndicate freedom for 20 or 30 years, the Egyptian street wouldn't have reached this level," argued Ahmed El-Borai, minister of manpower and immigration, in a reference to the protests hitting Egypt since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.
The independence of employment syndicates is one of the main issues on the agenda of the labour movement in Egypt. Speaking at a conference, El-Borai said that, "the first demand for workers when they started negotiations was the exclusion of the members of the syndicate. It was normal that every difference led to a sit-in and strike because there are no legitimate channels." El-Borai promised once again the creation of a new law for syndicates. In reality, this step has already been skipped, as an independent union and five independent syndicates have already been created. They have not, however, been formally established, a step that is taking a long time because of the resistance of the former officials in the Ministry of Manpower, according to the reports of many of the workers attending the conference.
Many of them showed a lot of skepticism regarding the effects of a new law that guarantees syndicate freedom without taking procedures against the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation, the only legal representative for workers since the time of President Nasser.
"I can't abolish a syndicate; it's against syndicate freedom. As long as the actual union is there, I will deal with it", said El-Borai in response to the workers comments about the status of the federation.
His answer found many objections. "The actual union has lot of privileges; they have touristic villages, a huge building that was just given to them, a bank and years of work in which nobody else was allowed to create a syndicate. It should be dismantled, then they can re-create their union on an equal basis", said Saber Barakat, a worker and activist who attended the conference.
Having syndicates that truly represent the workers interests is not the only dream of the workers that has taken root after the January 25 revolution; instituting a minimum wage, if not a wholesale reform of the wage structure, is another aim that they are trying to realize.
In the labour law promulgated in 2003, a supreme council for wages was supposed to fix a minimum wage, but that objective has not been reached eight years later, despite a court decree that followed the law.
"A minimum wage should be fixed and we need a new mechanism. It was proven that that kind of council announced by laws are never efficient in Egypt," said the minister.
The workers are not only asking for a minimum wage, a demand they have made for several years; they now want both a mechanism to keep the minimum wage in sync with prices, and a maximum wage.
"A maximum wage can be applied only in the public sector and is logical; the enormous gap between wages is exaggerated but it is illegal to impose it on the private sector," replied El-Borai. He also discussed another sensitive issue, the bill to criminalize protests.
"It's not about criminalizing protests but criminalizing sabotage so as to guarantee freedom to work. Strikes should not be in the place of work," argued the minister.
He didn't persuade most of the attendees. "And what if the employer brings workers from outside?" asked one. "Workers never destroy machines," argued others. "The employer can destroy machines and say that we did."
"I am talking about an exceptional law for this period in which 40 per cent of the industrial production capacity is paralyzed," El-Borai explained, but he still failed to convince everyone. "The protests are not what's paralyzing products," shouted someone as the conference came to an end.