To strike or not to strike
Late pay and better working conditions are at the heart of tens of strikes that have gripped the country, writes Niveen Wahish
Hundreds of workers at Cleopatra Ceramics, one of the largest private sector ceramics manufacturers, and thousands at Ghazl Al-Mahalla, Egypt's largest textiles spinning and weaving company, were on strike. And these are only two of the many strikes that have gripped the headlines for more than two weeks. There are other stories: Fayoum university workers, notary office employees in Ismailia and Minya, along with train drivers -- the list goes on. Their demands are more or less the same: better pay and improvement of working conditions. And strikes, sit-ins and roadblocks appear to be the only way to grab attention.
But this should not be the way to go, according to Magda Shalabi, head of the Department of Economics at Banha University. She said that Egypt is at the beginning of a new phase. She is worried that the economy is on the verge of collapse and stoppages to production -- whether in the private or public sector -- are not helping. "If it collapses, no one will get anything." The economy grew at 1.8 per cent in the fiscal year ending June 2012. It grew at around five per cent before the revolution.
Shalabi acknowledges that strikers are demanding what they believe are their rights, but she said they must keep in mind that the situation is fragile. "They should pursue their demands through their representatives, not by bringing their businesses to a halt." She believes it is pointless to ask for an increase in wages without meeting it with increased productivity. "That will only lead to inflation and thus reducing the purchasing power of their pay."
Notwithstanding, she said it is a "joint responsibility" and business owners, whether the government or the private sector, should make some concessions with the promise of granting more to workers once the economy picks up. She also underlined that business owners have a duty towards their workers to improve working conditions by training them and providing them with suitable social and health services. "They should not only be making profits. They must give back to their employees."
Others believe that some of the strikers' demands are overblown. Yousri Hamad, head of the economic committee of the Nour Party, which together with the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) held the majority in the disbanded parliament, said in a statement some of those complaining are already making more money than university professors and have no right to complain. Others, he said are demanding incentives and profit sharing in companies that are no longer productive because they brought production to a halt. Hamad insists there be no response to these labour demands until the economy stabilises and until wage gaps are studied.
But sociologist Samir Naeem is not supportive of the idea that strikes are unacceptable at this stage and that the workers should wait until the economy picks up. To him, putting strikes in that context is presenting a false image of the whole situation, because the revolution arose to fulfil the demands of the majority of the people who were impoverished by those who monopolise authority and wealth. "Those people have been patient for tens of years waiting for the day when they can speak up." Naeem stressed that social justice, one of the mottoes of the 25 January Revolution, had not been given enough concern by those in power, which led to a huge gap between those who have and those who have not.
He believes that what is happening now in terms of strikes and sit-ins of labourers and other wage earners is a natural phenomenon and is widespread all over the world. He pointed to recent protests in Spain against the government's planned austerity measures. "Nobody asked them to wait until the Spanish economy picks up." He believes that striking Egyptian workers exhausted all alternatives before they embarked on industrial action. "What should they do?" he questioned. Naeem pointed out that wages are in dire need of restructuring. "They have failed to keep up with the price hikes." He questioned how these workers can make ends meet when there are not appropriate government services in the first place, whether health, housing or education. "One cannot ask the weakest to sacrifice their need and not the rich to sacrifice their greed," he said.
Cairo University professor of economics Manal Metwally has a different take on the matter. She believes that continuous strikes means there is a problem that is not being resolved. She said Egyptians were hoping that with a president elect in power, stability would gradually return, leading to more investment. She does not think the comparison with strikes in developed countries is fair. "Their economies are already well established. There are regulations for striking and when strikes are not within the legal framework, they are dealt with harshly." In Egypt the situation is different, she said. "We are still building up our economy to create job opportunities and generate better incomes." Egypt needs to attract investment, she said. What is happening is the opposite. "We give the impression that the Egyptian worker is always complaining and is low on productivity."Metwally also questioned whether the state was doing enough as a supervisor and regulator, and in ensuring application of the rule of law. "That is the most important role for the state and it is not being done."
"We should not be going about our affairs one-on-one but through institutions." People should be able to express their opinion institutionally, she pointed out. "There must be some sort of legally and socially binding charter between business owners and workers that can be used as a reference when such disputes erupt." And, she added, there should also be a committee where labour, business owners, the government and international and Arab labour organisations are represented. "That committee would be the judge," she said.