Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Protesting his way to the ministry

The appointment of a veteran labour activist as the new minister of manpower raises hopes of improved working conditions in Egypt, writes Mona El-Fiqi

illustration
illustration
Al-Ahram Weekly

The unprecedented increase in the number of workers’ protests in the last years of the former Mubarak regime was one indicator that its end was looming.
However, the 25 January Revolution that ousted the former president, Hosni Mubarak, and promised social justice failed to give Egypt’s blue-collar workers even the minimum level of decent pay and working conditions.
As a result, the number of strikes and sit-ins in Egypt reached 1,398 in 2012.
In early June this year, Egypt was included on the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) blacklist of countries due to its violations of workers’ rights and the blocking of the proposed freedom of union membership law.
It is against this background of escalating labour disputes that Kamal Abu Eita, a veteran labour activist and a familiar face in many of the protests before and after the 25 January Revolution, has now been appointed as the new minister of manpower.
Abu Eita is a strong advocate of the right to form independent trade unions, and he is president of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), which has been a driving force in the campaign for trade union rights and social justice in the country.
His appointment has been welcomed by experts and the international trade union movement.
While the mere presence of Abu Eita in the chair of ministerial decision-maker has raised hopes for change, his first statements as minister have also painted the picture of a better future for workers.
Abu Eita announced that the ministry intended to reform the country’s minimum and maximum wage, for example.
Since the 25 January Revolution, this has been much discussed, with the then minister of finance, Samir Radwan, putting the minimum wage at LE700 a month in 2011 and saying that it would be raised to LE1,200 in five years.
In February 2012, the Shura Council discussed a bill setting the national minimum wage at LE1,200 per month for workers in both the public and private sectors. The maximum wage, calculated by multiplying the minimum wage by a factor of 35, came out at LE42,000.
Thus far, the law has not been passed.
In his first statements as minister, Abu Eita also said that his priorities would include issuing a trade union freedoms law, guaranteeing higher incomes for pensioners, re-hiring dismissed workers, and implementing the law regulating the recruitment of the disabled in government institutions.
Adel Al-Ezabi, head of the labour committee at the Federation of Egyptian Industries, told Al-Ahram Weekly that as a labour-rights advocate Abu Eita was a good choice for the Manpower Ministry in the transitional period.
“I think he will be able to lead the workers’ movement in the right way, since he is a well-known character in the labour community.”
Al-Ezabi said that Abu Eita could also help to reduce the number of workers’ strikes and sit-ins, which have caused huge problems for business owners and led to the closure of hundreds of factories over the past two years.
Abu Eita is known for having led the formation of the first independent trade union, the Real Estate Tax Authority Independent General Union, in 2009 after leading the Tax Authority employees’ national strike in 2007.
He fought the battle to split the new union from the state-backed General Union for Banking and Insurance Employees, to which the Tax Authority employees notionally belonged.
This role has raised reservations among the leaders of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (EFTU), the official representative of workers in Egypt.
Hundreds of members of the EFTU protested in front of the Union’s headquarters in downtown Cairo when Abu Eita’s name was suggested for the ministerial position as a result.
In order to ease the tensions, Abu Eita visited the EFTU headquarters to meet leaders two days after he was sworn in. During the visit, he said that he would be a “minister for all workers’ unions,” including independent, as well as state-backed, general unions.
Abdel-Moneim Al-Gamal, the EFTU secretary-general, said he hoped that Abu Eita would be able to achieve his plans, but “dreams are not enough to improve the country’s economic situation.”
According to Al-Gamal, the manpower plan should be part of the government’s comprehensive economic agenda, since workers’ problems could not be solved without dealing with other critical issues.
Al-Gamal said that the ministry could not reduce the unemployment rate without boosting investment and establishing new labour-intensive industries, for example.
Egypt has been striving to find such investment since the 25 January Revolution and the subsequent political uncertainty and violence, which has been blamed for frightening away investors.
This has been translated into a low rate of growth and an increased unemployment rate, which now stands at 13.2 per cent, compared to 9.5 per cent at the end of 2010.
Al-Gamal suggested that the government should provide incentives for investors during the transitional period to encourage them to open new projects and hire more workers.
According to Al-Gamal, creating job opportunities needed investments of between LE200,000 to LE240,000, according to the kind of investment.
Abu Eita has made unrealistic promises, such as the re-hiring of dismissed workers, because the minister could not oblige business owners to re-hire workers even if they were not fired for a valid reason, Al-Gamal said.
Some observers see Abu Eita’s plans as unworkable because they ignore limited allocations in the budget.
Some of the reforms Abu Eita has promised are not in the jurisdiction of his ministry either, such as raising pension payments, which is a matter decided by the Ministry of Social Insurance, according to Al-Ezabi.
“I hope that Abu Eita’s agenda is not just an attempt to win over public opinion, but is a real commitment to the public interest and the notion of social justice,” he added.

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