Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 -12 May 2004
Issue No. 689
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Labour backlog

Is the working class moving forward? Fatemah Farag reports on the issues raised by May Day

photo: Khaled Gowieli Click to view caption
In spite of harsh labour market conditions, workers continue to try and work to make ends meet
photo: Khaled Gowieli

This year May Day was basically "celebrated" without the working class.

On 1 May police forces overwhelmed a group of activists holding a May Day demonstration in Tahrir Square calling for a 40 per cent increase in wages.

On 3 May some 30 middle-aged and older men gathered in a small room at the Nasserist Party headquarters downtown to decry privatisation, American neo-colonialism and unemployment. They also announced the formation of a Labour Front coalition to be composed of labour offices at political parties and labour activists.

But where were Egypt's 21 million workers in all of this?

"The political parties can do nothing since they have no worker constituencies," scoffed one young activist at the Nasserist Party event.

Nor, it seems, can the government, as unemployment, poor working conditions, as well as the increased price of living continue to take their toll on the working class. "What kind of May Day is this to celebrate?" asked Essam Abdel- Hamid, who covers labour issues for the Nasserist Party's Al-Arabi newspaper. "The price of basic staples has gone up between 33 and 109 per cent -- onions being the exception as their price has increased by 500 per cent," said Abdel- Hamid. "Over five million people live in shantytowns, and over 100,000 Egyptians are diagnosed with cancer every year as a result of pollutants."

According to Manpower and Training Minister Ahmed El-Amawi, improved investment is the key to solving many of the problems. And yet, a recent report published by the Chambers of Commerce Federation indicated that 800 factories in the new industrial satellite cities have stopped production as a result of economic recession.

Some, like Kamal Abbas, head of the Centre for Trade Union Workers' Services (CTUWS), believe part of the problem stems from the unified labour law. Passed last year, the law took almost 10 years to come to fruition. Among its more controversial aspects is the committee established to decide on minimum wage, the restrictions of strike action, and limited time contracts.

Abbas said the fact that the minimum wage committee -- which was established last September under the leadership of the minister of planning -- has "as yet taken no action, was especially problematic in light of the steep increase in prices that have taken place over the past year".

While the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) endorses the law wholeheartedly, and the radical left insists that it be revoked, CTUWS argues that it might be more constructive to deal with the law as it is. "We campaign against its negative aspects but also try and take advantage of the benefits it can offer," explained Abbas.

To validate his point he highlights the clause that stipulates a minimum annual salary increase of seven per cent. "Within the public business sector the current rate is five per cent and there have been indications that the government will try not to raise the rate this year. Hence, we have initiated a campaign to make sure workers understand their rights under the new law and that when July [when raises are given] comes round they can rally for those rights," Abbas said.

The channels by which workers can express their demands, however, are also part of the problem. According to many activists, the GFTU is a mere puppet of government and the need has long existed to open up the trade union system to allow for multiplicity.

Khaled Ali of the Hisham Mubarak Legal Centre said that the Coordination Committee to Defend Worker Rights managed to obtain a court ruling proving that the results of the last GFTU elections were invalid. "We have been unable to serve the minister of manpower but we are currently trying to find his home address so that we can do so," Ali said.

While the legal system provides another channel for working class activism, Ali also said, "the current law has seriously impeded worker access to the courts. Now petitions go to the Appeals Court as opposed to courts of first instance. Of the former there are only eight nationwide."

According to Ali, last year alone over 1,000 cases have backlogged.

Abbas said another problem was that the five- member committee established by the law to look into labour complaints does not convene regularly. "This committee includes representatives of the federation, the judiciary and business, and the latter do not attend, so the committees can never convene."

The other level of class action is that which takes place on the shop floor, namely strikes, the right to which is heavily restricted by the current law.

Abbas recounted the story of "2,000 workers at a textile factory in Al-Mahala who are being forced to work a 12-hour day; eight hours of work, then a one-hour break, then back to work for another three hours. This is against the law, which defines a full time working day at seven hours. One day the workers decided, after an eight-hour shift, not to go back for the other three, which are illegal. The owner of the factory submitted a complaint to the labour office, claiming that his workers had gone on strike. The labour office filed a complaint against the workers, claiming they had gone on strike without following the procedures stipulated in the law. In the end, 24 workers were fired."

The rest, Abbas said, still work a 12-hour day.

"What has happened to the working class over the past few years is a crime," said Hamed Zeidan of the Jeel Party.

Abdel-Rahman Kheir, head of the left-leaning Tagammu Party's Labour Office, said the situation was so sad that "a worker in Ain Shams was so desperate that he burned himself to death on May Day."

"Change must come from within and not from without," said Zeidan. "We can only achieve workers' rights with democracy."

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