Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Strikes under control

The number of strikes and sit-ins in Egypt declined in the second half of the year, causing some commentators to predict an end to the workers’ movements

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The partial strike of workers at the state-owned  Egyptian Iron and Steel factory in Helwan in early December was the most significant in 2013, writes Mona El-Fiqi.
 Almost 5000 workers of the company staged a three-week sit in demanding the company›s administration to pay them their owed profits, put by various sources at between LE170 and LE300 million.
It was reported on December 14 that the workers ended the sit-in  after reaching a written agreement with the government according to which they will get their owed profits on two installments. A company statement on the following day, however, noted that the sit in continues. Moreover, tens of the company›s workers staged protests in front of the cabinet headquarters.
Labour activists and strike leaders blamed the minister of manpower, Kamal Abu Eita, for not promptly solving the problem.
However, Abu Eita has found praise from some quarters for his performance, and even before he was sworn in as minister this veteran trade-unionist, formerly head of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), released a statement saying that workers would abandon their protests in order not to harm the economy.
The two years following the 25 January Revolution saw the formation of dozens of independent workers’ federations, which managed to end the affiliation of all the country’s trade unions to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), created in 1957 and heavily criticised for being part of the government.
According to local labour NGOs, the total number of workers’ actions in 2011 was 1,400, and in 2012 this reached 1,969. The Egyptian Centre for Social Rights (ECSR) puts the number in the first quarter of 2013 at 2,400, including protests involving both workers and state-employed professionals like physicians, engineers and teachers.
However, while the new independent unions participated in ousting former president Mohamed Morsi by gathering signatures for the Tamarod Movement that was a main engine of the 30 June Revolution, the labour movements themselves now seem to have been tamed by the interim government put in place after that Revolution.
“The number and significance of strikes, sit-ins and protests declined through the second half of the year,” commented Gebali Al-Maraghi, deputy chairman of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, who said that the number of strikes had decreased by at least 50 to 60 per cent during the second half of the year and after the 30 June Revolution.
Abu Eita’s opponents increased one month after his taking office when he turned a blind eye to the use of force by the security forces against strikes at the Suez Steel Company and the Mahalla Textile factory, both of which were dispersed by tanks.   
However, according to Al-Maraghi after 30 June strikes and other protests have been justified only in cases such as the unjustified dismissal of workers or delays in the payment of salaries or bonuses.
Violence from workers in the industrial action that has occurred has been limited, according to Abdel-Moneim Al-Gamal, head of the General Syndicate for Workers in Wood and Building Materials Industries.  
Al-Gamal said that in rare cases workers had been forced to break factory gates when they were refused entry, and in some cases they had clashed with company or factory administration representatives when discussing financial rights. However, the workers also had feelings of involvement in the companies they worked for, meaning that they would never resort to destroying premises or machines.
He said that another reason for the decline in the number of strikes and sit-ins had been that “workers have realised that their social and financial demands have been used politically for the benefit of some parties over the past two years,” and that this has not necessarily benefited them.
Abu Eita has been given the credit for raising the minimum wage for state employees to LE1,200 from the previous LE700. While workers aimed for higher incomes, Al-Maraghi said that this was a good first step in improving the living standards of workers.
A minimum level for private-sectors workers has not yet been set by law.  
However, Al-Gamal said that the minimum wage was a “government show” rather than a real increase in workers’ incomes. “We want to see an increase in workers’ basic salaries and not a decision to set total incomes at LE1,200,” he said.  
He also complained about the cancellation of the 50 per cent representation quota of workers in parliament, arguing that this should have been withdrawn on a gradual basis.
Although workers representatives are displeased about the cancellation of the workers’ quota in the People’s Assembly, which has been in place since the 1950s, both Al-Gamal and Al-Maraghi said they would be voting for the new constitution.  
A further mishap for labour in 2013 was Egypt’s being placed back on the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) blacklist — it was removed in 2011 — for violating workers’ rights according to ILO standards.
ILO regulations permit workers and employers to establish and join trade unions of their own choosing without previous authorisation. They also have the right to establish and join federations and confederations, which may in turn affiliate with international organisations of workers and employers.
However, Egypt’s draft labour law contained restrictive provisions and did not allow labour organisations to work freely in practice.

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