Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Where is ‘social justice’?

Fewer than five years after the 25 January Revolution, it seems that calls for social justice have become little more than a memory for many Egyptians, writes Alessandra Bajec

Al-Ahram Weekly

The slogan “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice,” part of key demands of the 25 January Revolution, seems far from people’s minds today as many Egyptians have failed to see such demands realised, especially social justice.

From living, working, and wages to housing, healthcare and education, there has been little socioeconomic development for the vast majority of Egyptians, particularly in Upper Egypt.

Driving through Al-Shurafa, a village across the Nile from Minya, it takes little to notice the narrow, poorly paved roads, the modest houses clustered together, the dwellings sitting near a dirty brook dotted with waste and garbage bags, the smell of sewage water, and the villagers in their modest clothes in the streets.

“Upper Egypt has remained largely marginalised. Our villages are neglected, and we are deprived of basic public services,” said Alaa Al-Takhly Mohamed, a quarry worker from east of Minya. “The government is more interested in the north.”

A lack of sanitary drainage facilities and running water and high poverty and illiteracy rates are among the main problems facing villages located east of the Nile in the Minya governorate. People living in Upper Egypt complain of a discriminatory wage system and few opportunities, with senior jobs going to people from Cairo and the Nile Delta.

Due to the scarcity of agricultural land and the abundance of raw materials in the Eastern Desert, limestone quarries offer most of the job opportunities in this area. Although there are no official statistics, quarry workers account for more than 20,000 adult workers and more than 3,000 working children east of Minya. This is despite the labour laws that prohibit the employment of children under 18 in 27 jobs classified as dangerous, including in quarries.

Children who are forced to work may be the victims of harassment or maltreatment, and may be deprived of basic health and education. Working in quarries is one of the most dangerous jobs in Egypt. Dozens of workers are reported injured every day, without having access to medical treatment due to the long distances from their villages.

“One big problem quarry workers face is the lack of insurance,” said 65-year-old Samir Nagui Tosa who used to work in the mountains east of Minya. Both the government and the quarry owners fail to provide social security or health insurance to their workers.

Although working in the quarries is better paid than working in agriculture, the higher pay is definitely not worth the risks and health problems that can result from the job, especially since the workers and their families are the ones who have to cover medical expenses in the event of accidents.

Egypt’s only organisation concerned with quarry workers, the NGO Wadi Al-Nil, works in villages in the Minya governorate and seeks to provide quarry workers and their families with the support and services they need, as well as to improve their working conditions.

In rural areas of the governorate, people mostly work in agriculture, where income levels are generally low. “We see more opportunities going to the public sector, but we farmers remain poor and abandoned,” said Abdallah Ali Ali from the Al-Shurafa village.

“Unless there’s social justice for every Egyptian we can’t talk about social and economic rights,” added Mohamed Meghtemed Mohamed. He graduated in commerce back in 1991 and today works as a farmer. He wasn’t as lucky as others who got government jobs thanks to higher social status or through personal connections.

The limited supply of fertilisers, shortages of water for irrigation, and the high cost of renting agricultural land are among the major concerns of farmers in rural Egypt.

 “Fertilisers are hardly available on the market, and they are expensive. Prices have gone up to LE180 from LE40 before the 2011 Revolution,” Mohamed said. “The quality of the fertilisers is often bad, and they give low productivity.”

“If a farmer cannot pay costly land rents, the local agricultural association won’t give him fertiliser,” he added. He highlighted the underprivileged status of small farmers, compared to large-scale farmers who own most cultivated land. Renting land can cost up to LE10,000 per feddan a year.

“We in Upper Egypt don’t enjoy the same rights as others, and we make little money from what we grow,” said Malak Gaber, another farmer, from the Al-Abadeya village. “Farmers in Lower Egypt are able to get higher productivity from their lands and better markets for their products.”

Education is underdeveloped in the region, and many children drop out of school for various reasons, including the limited incomes of their families. “I’ve had to ask my 17-year-old son and my wife to help me work the land, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to cover the cost of the rent,” Mohamed said.

Rural areas in the Minya governorate often have no safe drinking water, sanitation, waste disposal or appropriate health facilities. There may be only one hospital or clinic in a large area, and only one doctor for each village, with a limited stock of medicines.

Similarly, fishermen haven’t seen many changes in their lives since the Revolution. “We’re still not covered by health insurance, and we can only get state pensions when we reach the age of 65,” complained Wessa Saad Abdel-Sayed, a fisherman from the village of Deir Al-Barsha. “Our only resource is our health. If we fall sick we can’t make an income and feed our families.”

Due to challenging weather conditions and deteriorating health as a result of their work, many fishermen are forced to stop working before they turn 60. “We should get an early pension, from the age of 50, and health insurance should be guaranteed for fishermen,” said Bakr Mohamed Amin from the Eastern Matahra village. “For me, social justice means everyone has the right to work and make a living.”

One main problem for the fishermen is that there is a lack of work throughout the year, meaning they do not have alternative activities to raise money from. Hanaa Abdel-Magid from Eastern Matahra, the wife of a fisherman, is now the only breadwinner in a family of seven that includes five school-age children.

“We don’t have any other income outside what I earn from raising cattle at home, and that gives us LE1,200 at best,” she said.

SOCIAL JUSTICE FACTS: Egypt’s 2014 Universal Periodic Review (UPR), jointly produced by 51 organisations and 79 unions, showed that the successive administrations that have governed the country since the 25 January Revolution have done little to respond to popular demands, failing to enact reforms that could provide social and economic rights and address the rights of the most vulnerable.

According to recent statistics, half of Egypt’s overall population lives in poverty, over a third of young people are unemployed, and one in three children under five are chronically malnourished. Egypt was listed as one of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s “low-income food-deficit countries” in 2013. Rural Upper Egypt continues to have the highest poverty rate in the country, where children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

 A study conducted by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) found that in 2013 over 50 per cent of children under the age of 17 were poor, with just below 30 per cent of them living in extreme poverty. More than half of these reside in Upper Egypt. Extreme poverty in Egypt is classified as earning less than LE10.7 per day, while those in poverty earn LE13.9 or less per day.

The 2014 UPR indicates that 4,600 public and private factories have been closed since 2011, resulting in the lay-off of thousands. Wages have not been adjusted in line with rising living costs, and although a new minimum wage was introduced in September 2013, it covers public-sector employees only.

The joint report also reveals that many women are deprived of their rights to maternity leave and to child care, which are protected under the labour laws, and that they face widespread discrimination in employment, wages and work conditions. Furthermore, farmers, domestic workers and other workers in the informal sector are not covered by health and social insurance.

Last September, CAPMAS reported that inflation in Egypt had risen to 9.4 per cent, its highest since September 2014. Egypt’s annual urban consumer inflation rate is expected to increase by 10 to 11 per cent in the coming period, partly because the government plans to reduce subsidies on a number of services, which will lead to a significant rise in prices.

The consumer price index (CPI) increased by 0.6 per cent in July 2015 compared to the preceding month, according to CAPMAS. The rise follows price increase in services controlled by the state, such as electricity, water and gas, which increased in price by 3.2 per cent. Earlier in June, the government raised petroleum product prices, including fuel, diesel and natural gas, as a means to finance the growing budget deficit.

Prices for many food items have also soared. A kg of tomatoes cost between LE3 and LE5 at the end of September, and now it varies between LE12 to LE14. The prices of other vegetables have also doubled, with a kilo of potatoes now costing LE7, instead of LE3, and a kilo of courgettes rising from LE5 to LE9, the Al-Watan newspaper has reported. Meat prices rose by 30 per cent ahead of the Eid Al-Adha holiday, which typically sees a major increase in meat consumption.

In reaction to the steep rises in prices, activists have launched campaigns on social media to put pressure on the authorities to intervene in order to lower prices. It comes as little surprise to learn that many people cannot afford to pay the higher prices, and many vulnerable households are not able to cover monthly food expenditures.

While inflation is expected to rise, consumer purchasing power will also be reduced with the introduction of the new value-added tax (VAT) law, which is set to be approved by the government before the end of the year. Around 40 per cent of Egypt’s tax base comes from indirect taxes (largely, the sales tax), which unfairly impact lower-income households.

Norhan Sherif, research director at the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), an NGO, notes that introducing VAT has been a priority response of different administrations since 2011 to address the budget deficit.

“But VAT will place an excessive burden on the consumer and come at the expense of lower-income working people,” she said.

Informal settlements are also growing due to the lack of affordable housing in Egypt. There are now over 1,000 informal areas nationwide that house tens of millions of Egyptians. The main problems in informal areas relate to living standards and the lack of basic services.

Limited budgets are allocated to these deprived neighbourhoods, and development plans are often carried out without regard for their socioeconomic impacts on communities, violating the rights of residents; for instance, by forcibly evicting families from informal areas.

“Plans designed to target low-income households have turned into businesses benefiting middle- to high-income families instead and harming the poorest,” Sherif added in reference to the state’s handling of the housing sector since the period of former president Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt also continues to spend little on healthcare. According to UPR figures, public expenditure on health has remained low, at only 4.02 per cent of the budget in 2013-2014, despite Egypt’s commitment to allocate at least 15 per cent of its budget to improving health care.

Low spending has led to a decline in the quality of public health, with households facing higher expenses when resorting to private care. Access to health care services also remains unequal between Upper and Lower Egypt.

UPR estimates show that about 40 per cent of households in Minya do not have access to drinking water, compared to only 1.1 per cent in Damietta, and connection rates to the sewage system in Greater Cairo were 96 per cent in 2006, compared to 15 per cent in urban Upper Egypt.

The 2014 Constitution provides for universal health coverage (Article 18) and progressive increases in public spending on education and health (Articles 18 and 19). Yet in 2014 public spending on education decreased to between 10 and 12 per cent, which contributed to deterioration in the quality of education.

Increasing numbers of families have had to turn to private tutoring. The UN children’s agency UNICEF estimates that fewer than 10 per cent of schools in Egypt meet national standards for quality education, and about one in five school buildings are not fit for use and lack functional water and sanitation facilities.

MORE TO BE DONE: Before the 2011 Revolution, it was difficult for workers to organise, to have their own unions and to voice their demands.

Today, there has been an increase in the number of independent unions and syndicates. By the end of 2013, five independent federations had been created, representing more than 1,600 independent unions, the 2014 UPR revealed.

“We first formed a syndicate in the Al-Awam village. Now we have 18 syndicates in 18 villages in the Minya governorate,” said Adel Anwam Abdel-Malek, coordinator of the Small Farmers Project at Minya’s Better Life Association for Comprehensive Development (BLACD), an NGO.

BLACD works to empower marginalised people such as fishermen, small farmers and women in the poorest communities of Upper Egypt to enjoy their rights, helping institutions to play their roles effectively and link them with policy-makers.

 “Thanks to our union we now know how to claim our rights and reach out to government officials,” said Tharwat Sadek, a farmer from Abu Henes. “Before the revolution people had no idea about their rights, but now we can raise our voices and play a role in our communities,” said Sahar Salah, the wife of a farmer from Al-Awam.

“One achievement of the revolution was that as more trade unions were established women could join as board members,” another wife of a farmer, Mamga Hakeem, said with a smile.

Mostafa Abdel-Aziz Moussa, from the Garbal Al-Tin village, stressed how vital it is to form a syndicate, since this is the only organisation defending the rights of fishermen like him. Before the Revolution, fishermen did not have trade unions. Today, there is a federation of fishermen’s unions in Egypt.

Nevertheless, many such unions and syndicates are not officially recognised by the state, especially in the absence of legislation recognising multiple unions and the right to association.

“We were mentioned in the constitution for the first time,” Wessa said in a reference to the 2014 Constitution where items concerning farmers’ rights are included. However, Sahar said that although there are provisions relating to farmers in the Constitution, no laws or decrees have been issued until now.

Hanaa has great hopes in the upcoming parliament, which she wants to see issue new laws protecting fishermen and their wives. Former quarryman Samir shared similar thoughts, saying that he hopes the next parliament will pass laws protecting workers’ rights. For him, the earlier decree establishing independent trade unions was an achievement of the Revolution, even if it has not yet passed into law.

Samir, who is also the vice-president of Egypt’s only union of quarry workers, welcomes the new ration card system for subsidised food as a positive step towards providing access to 20 different products. But he says that the recent increases in food prices have much affected the lives of Egypt’s poor.

In July 2014, the government expanded the basket of the commodities subsidised under the ration card programme. New additions include both food items (including meat, chicken, fish, pulses, and dairy products, but no vegetables or fruit) and non-food items (hygiene and cleaning products).

Each ration cardholder can buy items at any quantity, from various brands at different price levels, with the state paying LE15 from the total cost, instead of being entitled to a traditional fixed ration of subsidised rice, sugar and cooking oil, the only subsidised goods previously available to consumers.

In referring to social security, Samir argued that the number of families without social security who are entitled to financial aid from the state should be expanded and that the criteria for selecting such families should be reviewed and made less strict.

“We’ve seen a few changes after the revolution as a result of much effort and pressure by civil society and rights organisations, but we expect more,” the former quarry worker commented.

Like many quarrymen, Alaa found himself jobless six months ago, when many quarries in the Minya governorate were shut or partially closed after the introduction of a law increasing taxes on quarry owners. There were no other jobs he could turn to, he said.

“I’ve been very much affected by the closure of the quarries,” Alaa said. “Since I was forced to stop working, we are now depending on LE500 a month in state aid for a family of six.”

The lack of opportunities, social inequality, corruption, and failures in public services remain at the core of popular dissatisfaction. So how long will many Egyptians have to wait before they see their rights realised?

For Sherif, the waiting time will be correlated with how smart the government will prove to be in ruling the country. She added that the government has taken steps to make sure people felt secure. “People won’t work if they don’t feel safe,” she said.

In her view, what helped the Mubarak regime last for nearly 30 years was the space left for people to express themselves and for civil society to operate. “People may be willing to wait if they’re given their rights. If they are not, then their patience may decrease,” Sherif concluded.

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