|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
13 - 19 August 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Privatisation faces a hot summer
As various disjointed forms of labour unrest continue to plague major industrial centres, the government and the General Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions (GEFTU) remain locked in a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war. Sayed Rashed, head of GEFTU, has announced that the two sides will open direct talks soon. GEFTU officials told Al-Ahram Weekly that they will stress, in the course of the negotiations, the need to push the draft Unified Labour Law through parliament as quickly as possible. They will also underline the need to allocate the necessary resources to adequately fund the upcoming stages of the early retirement programme.
On the ground, expressions of discontent with privatisation policies are voiced by workers. "The only way to understand the wave of strikes that have taken place in the past few weeks is to note that they have a common theme; they are targeting -- at least in part -- the measures taken within the framework of privatisation," said Kamal Abbas of the Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services. To prove his point, he cited the strikes which took place on 15 and 16 July at the Egypt-Helwan Textiles Factory and the Nasr Pharmaceutical plant where the payment of financial incentives was delayed while suspicions of sale or rental were rampant.
Moreover, textile workers in the Nile Delta town of Kafr El-Dawwar withdrew their support for the labour representatives elected to the board of directors because of disputes regarding the implementation of the early retirement programme. At the Iron and Steel complex in Helwan, workers rejected the early retirement plan in its entirety.
This followed the distribution of a leaflet in mid-July, which showed that the early retirement programme would result in a loss of financial benefits, and gave detailed calculations to prove that recipients would suffer a severe drop in retirement payments.
Anger was so widespread at the factory that the minister of manpower, Ahmed El-Ammawi, addressed the issue publicly during his opening of a clinic in the area on 20 July. His address, however, failed to make workers change their position.
The government has advocated the early retirement programme as a means of getting rid of "excess" labour -- a necessary move to make factories more profitable and thus attractive to potential private buyers. A 45-year-old worker at the Iron and Steel factory explains: "I don't get a good package if I leave now and I won't get another job either because I am too old; even younger men are not finding jobs. So why should I take it?"
According to specialists, the hitches in the implementation of the first phase of the early retirement plan is undercutting the potential for the smooth implementation of the second phase. "The first phase has cast a shadow over the entire programme," said Rahma Rifaat, a Helwan-based lawyer specialising in labour disputes. "The indications are that what was implemented peacefully previously will now face resistance. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Social Fund for Development is withdrawing as a major financier of the programme. Consequently, out of 1,800 workers who applied for the programme at the Egypt-Helwan Spinning Factory, only 200 were actually paid. Funds were lacking and the remaining workers are scheduled for payment in September and December."
According to labour activists, the importance of the Iron and Steel episode is that it has done away with the belief that privatisation is a fait accompli as far as workers are concerned. "People can now see that there is a choice, that they can say no," Abbas said.
In the absence of a workable early retirement programme, formidable obstacles are bound to confront the sale and rental of major factories. Following last month's strike at the Misr-Helwan Spinning and Weaving Factory, workers were given a three-week holiday during which the administration announced that only 2,080 out of 8,700 workers should report for work on Saturday. This coincided with rumours that the factory was to be rented to the private sector. "Only those operating specific lines are to return to work. The rest will be given their basic salary only, which means a 50 per cent drop in wages. We do not know how some 6,000 workers will react to this," said Abbas.
Will the upcoming negotiations between the government and GEFTU provide a solution to the problem? "We don't think the negotiations are going to happen and, even if they do, we don't know if they will lead to a solution," said a GEFTU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A complaint voiced by GEFTU officials constantly is that the government does not give them sufficient scope to play their role of defusing worker discontent. As Mohamed Afifi, a member of the union for chemical industries, put it, "We could stand by the workers and be adamant but we are still trying to do our job. It is getting rather difficult, though."
Back in Helwan, the trucks of Central Security Forces can be seen around the Spinning and Weaving Factory and the hot summer air hangs heavy.