Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 April - 4 May 2005
Issue No. 740
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

May Day and the absent actor

The keyword these days is reform; but is there any chance of a spillover into the labour movement, asks Fatemah Farag

Click to view caption
Esco workers protest the privatisation of their company

Next week is Labour Day -- that once a year event when the government, and a good part of the opposition, offer their token tributes to Egyptian labour. And yet, with this year's political arena brimming with talk of political reform, little is being said about the labour movement's role in the reform process, or what workers can expect from the widely anticipated "winds of change."

In the words of independent labour activist Kamal Abbas, head of the Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), "unfortunately, the labour movement's democratic demands are absent from the agenda of change called for by the opposition. Even the political parties that are close to workers' circles -- such as the Tagammu and Nasserist parties -- are only interested now in the laws that regulate political participation and professional syndicates."

Instead, old-style rhetoric, reminiscent of the heydays of the Arab Socialist Union (the single party that monopolised political life in the country under Gamal Abdel-Nasser), looks set to colour the agenda of next week's May Day celebrations, as it has continued to do for decades. Sayed Rashed, head of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), has told the press that, "Egypt's workers and their organisations are the real bulwark of the regime... Egypt's workers, via their national unified trade union, announced that they will remain behind the leader, and that President Hosni Mubarak is the only nominee of the Egyptian working class in the upcoming presidential elections. Labour Day this year is a celebration of 20 million workers' support for, and nomination of, the president."

Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif reportedly met with official trade union representatives last week; as did many a prime minister before him, he agreed that the draft social and health insurance laws needed to take their final shape. When asked to list outstanding labour demands and concerns, party-affiliated and independent activists express similar longings. Their list always includes the 2003 Unified Labour Law, which continues to constrain the labour movements. The Minimum Wage Committee established last September has also yet to become operational. The Five-Member Committee established by the law to arbitrate labour disputes with business continues to meet erratically, resulting in a backlog of cases; according to some sources, procedures that took two to three months in court now take up to three years to finalise, leaving workers without financial assistance in the meantime.

Also, in accordance with the Unified Labour Law, the procedures that allow businesses to close down factories are now easier, and as a result workers are increasingly finding themselves pushed on the dole, and without recourse to compensation, while strike action remains under legal wraps.

In the face of all these concerns, it is difficult to find rank-and-file workers who feel that the official trade union structure is responsive to their concerns. In spite of GFTU's declarations over the past few years -- pledging to develop the labour movement's collective bargaining skills, and to adapt the trade union movement's performance to the requisites of a liberalised economy -- the sentiments of many labour activists were summed up by Karam Saber, head of the Land Centre for Human Rights (which issues a bi-annual report on the state of the labour movement), who told Al-Ahram Weekly that, "GFTU continues to work as it always has. It is the arm of the Ministry of Labour, and concerns itself with political issues such as supporting the establishment, instead of involving itself in labour concerns. In fact their position towards the various incidents of labour dispute that have taken place over the past year has been either antagonistic or ambivalent."

This lack of effective organisation was not always the working class's fate. In fact, the first half of the past century witnessed a growing labour movement that ultimately organised its own trade union structure. The 1952 revolution led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser, however, co-opted this independent movement within the framework of a populist regime, and in the name of national unity. The result was that -- on the one hand -- workers were given legal rights and benefits (a formula often described as a "social contract"), while -- on the other hand -- they were also deprived of the right to independent organisation.

Since then, and especially as the government gallops along the road to full economic liberalisation, many trade unionist activists have been calling for democratising the Soviet-style trade union structure, allowing for trade union pluralism, based on voluntary membership and autonomy from the state.

Nevertheless, the voice of labour has been conspicuously absent in the midst of the ongoing din of democratic reform, which has dominated the country's political landscape during the past months.

"The central issue for the labour movement this year is not the social insurance law or other such questions. It is the demand that the authoritarian and anachronistic trade union law should be scrapped and full trade union liberties be restored," insists CTUWS's Abbas.

"All of the tension and energy of the current [opposition] movement is disassociated from the agents that should be of primary concern in a process of democratisation, namely workers and farmers," points out Saber. "Unfortunately, in spite of the importance of the needs and requirements of the working class in the formulation of a reform movement, with all the pre-occupation with constitutional and other political reform, these are either ignored, or very weakly represented."

One reason for this, argues Abbas, is that "political movements that once upheld the interests of the working class based themselves on public sector workers, most of whom have been liquidated through early retirement schemes." In an attempt to bridge the gap between the movement calling for political reform and the working class, CTUWS will be launching a campaign next week at the shop floor level arguing that the time is now ripe for independent trade unions.

And even though the reform movement has yet to take labour on board, Abbas highlights the fact that "the current environment where workers see people taking on the state and putting up a fight has created a situation in which we can see renewed labour activism of the sort now taking place in Qalyubia [the recent two-month-long Esco workers protest against the privatisation of the company]. I do not think that such a movement would have been possible if it were not for the current movement for political reform."

Whether or not Egyptian labour is set to enter the political arena any time soon remains to be seen. But in considering an answer, the concluding remarks of American scholars Joel Benin and Zachary Lockman in Workers on the Nile, their pioneering tome on the Egyptian working class between 1882 and 1954, are worth considering: "[T]he working class remains a factor to be reckoned with in Egyptian society... Even though presently unorganised and relatively inactive, the working class retains a potential for mobilisation and collective action which will insure it a part in shaping Egypt's future."

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