Al-Ahram Weekly Online
4 -10 April 2002
Issue No.580
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Al-Ahram:

A Diwan of contemporary life (436)

Dr YunanThe year 1928 was ironic -- receiving, as it did, relatively little attention regarding the Egyptian labour movement though it saw the start of what would become commonplace: strikes by Egyptian workers. A tobacco company, the tramways and the Seaman's Syndicate all had to deal with protesting workers. Advocating the workers' cause were Mahgoub Thabet, a champion of labour rights, and Al-Ahram, which published letters of support. The protests gave rise to the demand for a labour law. A committee was formed to draw up the law on all things pertaining to workers' rights. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* writes about Egypt's labour pains


Labour's 'missing year'

Mahgoub Thabet
The year 1928 has not received the attention it merits from historians of the Egyptian labour movement, despite the fact that it marked the introduction of the first bill for a labour law. While the draft law was published in the 26 and 27 October editions of Al-Ahram, the scant attention it is given in academic studies perhaps allows us to call it the missing year in the history of the Egyptian labour movement.

Of course, it was not as though workers and bosses had dozed off for a while and then woken from their slumber to find the labour bill under their noses. Leafing through earlier Al-Ahram editions in that year, one observes a lengthy build-up, filled with dramatic confrontations.

Oddly, 1928 was a propitious year for labour gains. That year saw the advent of two radically different governments: those of Mustafa El-Nahhas and Mohamed Mahmoud. The former ruled from April to June when it was dismissed by royal decree -- the first instance of its kind in Egyptian history. The second, upon assuming power, suspended the 1923 constitution, declared a dictatorship and announced plans to introduce a range of reforms in a representational system that insisted on bringing in intractable Wafd Party-dominated parliaments and powerful populist Wafd leaders in government. Mahmoud kept the constitution suspended for three years.

Riding the crest of the spirit of the 1919 Revolution, the Egyptian labour movement burgeoned briefly under the Wafd-majority governments, peaking under the Saad Zaghlul-led "people's government," when Abdel-Rahman Fahmi founded the Nile Valley General Federation of Labour Syndicates. The federation was established under a Wafdist umbrella, of course. With the fall of the Zaghlul government in 1924 and the succession of the Ziwar cabinet, which instituted a number of repressive measures against the labour federation, syndicate activism ebbed sharply, virtually vanishing the following year.

Sociological factors were operable in this turnabout, as the sustainability of the labour movement was to a large extent contingent upon elements from the upper middle class, urban and intellectual elite, from which the syndicates derived their leadership. If this impetus slowed down during the post-people's government period, there were individuals who continued to play a prominent role. One of these was Mahgoub Thabet.

Thabet must be one of the most unconventional personalities in contemporary Egyptian history. In that "missing year," his name was closely associated with the developments in the labour movement. By then he had a long record of zealous dedication to various nationalist causes, so zealous in fact that it bordered on the obsessive and earned him a reputation as an eccentric whose actions produced indulgent smirks among friends and adversaries alike. As a result, Thabet was deprived of much of his due in the annals of Egyptian history.

Thabet surfaced in a previous Diwan as the "Sudanophile," a strident proponent of Egypt's claim to Sudan and of "the unity of the Nile Valley." In this episode, we see him in action once again as a vociferous labour advocate, so much so that he came under the scrutiny of British authorities in Cairo. In a confidential report to London, the British high commissioner listed Thabet as one of the more influential figures in the Egyptian political scene. The report continues: "A prime political agitator during the disturbances of 1919, Thabet's involvement with the labour movement began in 1921 when he succeeded in organising a number of strikes in support of the Wafd. However, he was ejected from the party the following year under a cloud of allegations regarding misappropriation of funds. He met with further disappointment under the Zaghlul government, upon which he had pinned hopes of political advancement. In 1927, he was voted into parliament. Then, in the wake of the coup led by Mohamed Mahmoud the following year, he sided with the government of the 'mighty hand,' which in turn led to his second expulsion from the Wafd."

Hardly a week passed in 1928 without some news or other appearing in Al-Ahram about labour, under such headlines as "The Labour Movement," "Workers' Problems," "Work and Workers," and "Labour and Public Opinion." Al-Ahram was keen to publish relevant articles appearing in the foreign press, especially in Britain. Representative of such articles was the following from a British magazine in May 1928, which commented, "The condition of workers in Egyptian industry is unbearable. Although the current parliament has now been in power for nearly two years, it has done nothing to protect workers. This total indifference to the welfare of workers is due to the lack of organised labour bodies to defend them and the lack of syndicates qualified and capable of speaking in their name. But as the demand for legislation to protect workers has increased, the labour movement should now become a powerful social and political force in Egypt."

These remarks were not mere conjecture, but rather founded upon close observation of the labour scene in Egyptian cities, particularly Alexandria. In fact, that very year began with a strike in the Cotarelli Tobacco Company. Al-Ahram reports that due to poor organisation, labour ranks split between those who favoured the strike and those who wanted to continue to work regardless of the circumstances. On the day of the strike, the rift erupted into brawls and stone-throwing. "The commissioner of police at the head of a police force rushed to the scene where they put a halt to the hostilities and rushed the injured to hospital. Compounding the seriousness of the matter, striking workers claimed that their non-striking colleagues shot at them while each side blamed the other for provoking the violence."

Leaders of the two factions exchanged accusations on the pages of the national press. Speaking for the striking workers, the syndicate president charged that "men in the pay of Cotarelli" opened fire at the striking workers in order to incite them to respond similarly, "but the strikers remained calm and orderly." Simultaneously, a person claiming to speak on behalf of the employees who wanted to report to work charged that it was the strikers who were the first to attack with stones and demanded that security officials and the public take action to protect honest workers.

Soon afterwards, similar expressions of dissent emerged among Alexandrian tramway workers although the tension this time was limited to the language of mutual recrimination -- what Al-Ahram described as "the weapon of bulletins containing reciprocal accusations and grievances which have been met with regret and disapproval by all rational individuals."

The more radical elements were labelled "propagandists of extremist ideas" -- then the rubric for communists or Bolshevists. Their aim was "to instigate strikes and interrupt the city's transportation system so as to realise demands that could be obtained without a strike and without paralysing movement in the city."

Mahgoub Thabet made an appearance here as a mediator between the rival factions, but without success. The radicals split off from the syndicate of tramway workers to form a new syndicate, choosing a member of the Alexandrian municipal board as their adviser for this purpose, "due to their confidence in his ability to defend their interests." Apparently security authorities feared that such moves would create problems of a more violent nature, for Al-Ahram reports that the Alexandrian police commissioner instructed several of his officers to bring in the radical syndicalists for questioning on charges of extremism. Al- Ahram does not inform us of the results of these investigations.

Perhaps the incident that best illustrates the most explosive disputes that arose within the working classes is the complaint lodged by the Seamen's Syndicate against brokers who provided certain ships with unqualified non-union members, a practice which had tarnished the professional reputation of the syndicate and its members. Again, Thabet, who was MP for Mina Al-Basal in Alexandria, stepped in. He took the grievance brought to him by the seamen to Prime Minister El-Nahhas and asked him "to put an end to the chaos caused by a group of brokers who procure jobs on ships for Egyptians who are not qualified seamen. Frequently, it occurs that the captain of a ship abandons some of these workers in foreign ports after having discovered their incompetence, with the result that Egyptian consulates abroad are compelled to send these workers back to Alexandria at the government's expense. Moreover, these so-called workers are often in fact drug smugglers." Thabet suggested that in the future the best way to prevent members of the Seamen's Syndicate from being unjustly treated would be to ensure that passports are only issued to them after ascertaining their membership in the syndicate.

That Thabet's intervention here and in other labour disputes failed was a source of great bitterness to him. Indeed, he claims it was one reason for his eventual support for the Mohamed Mahmoud government. Obviously concerned about being ostracised, he goes to great lengths to justify this shift in political allegiances "for the sake of truth and history: a statement that must be made to the masses, workers and public opinion," was the title of a lengthy letter he wrote to Al-Ahram, citing excerpts from the minutes of parliamentary sessions as a means of vindicating himself.

In the parliamentary session of 17 May 1928, Thabet charged that the Ministry of Interior was not concerned with the performance of its labour bureau. The bureau "has done nothing to investigate the thousands of complaints that pour into it from workers from Aswan to Alexandria," he charged. He went on to urge authorities to take swift action over such complaints "so as to reprimand those who seek to promote principles that do not conform with our social system." Although the deputy minister of interior, who was present in the session, pledged to devote his attention to this grievance, Thabet complains that beyond these words, the ministry undertook no further action.

The parliamentary minutes of 17 July told of Thabet's demand to draw the attention of the Railways Authority to a grievance lodged by the coal stokers and engineers who "rightly constitute the very soul of the engine of the railways and without whose hands the authority could make no income. These are the people to whom we entrust our lives and money." The minutes said that Thabet then took out a brief containing the demands of these workers and distributed it among the members of parliament, after which he presented to the minister of transport an appeal to consider the demands contained therein. The minister responded that he would, indeed, view the demands "with sympathy and compassion." But in Thabet's letter to Al-Ahram, he wrote that such sentiments alone were insufficient.

On 18 May, during parliament's review of the proposed national budget, Thabet criticised the government for neglecting miners and urged parliament to promulgate legislation to safeguard the rights of these workers in keeping with the relevant resolutions adopted by the League of Nations. Once again, his appeal fell on deaf ears.

Al-Ahram, too, took up a number of labour causes. On 13 February, it reported the demands voiced by the workers of the National Spinning Company, which included "full pay for an eight- hour day, as long as the worker has reported to work and remains on the factory premises," and a prohibition against firing staff "regardless of the causes cited unless the matter is brought before a disciplinary committee." Employers apparently had a tendency to resort to a very loose interpretation of the concept "grave wrong" used as grounds to dismiss staff. For this reason the Spinning Company workers asked for a restricted definition of the term.

Later that year, on 2 April, Al-Ahram published the grievances and demands of the workers of the National Lighting Company who protested against the reduction of their salaries during the summer on the pretext that daylight hours were longer during that season. In addition to a fixed salary, they also demanded that sick leave remain at 45 days a year. Al-Ahram described these demands as "modest," and expressed surprise that the company refused to consider them. "Why does the company not act as a mother to those innocent children upon whom its very existence depends?" it asked.

Workers' strikes and grievances, along with the advocacy of their causes in public, gave rise to the demand to introduce a labour law, a demand that gained momentum later in the year.

In January, in response to labour pressure, a committee was formed to draft a labour law. In its first meeting, the committee, headed by the deputy minister of justice, moved to write to the League of Nations to have it send over copies of laws pertaining to workers. Al-Ahram noted that the committee intended to draw upon French labour law. At the same time, the committee also became a form of board of arbitration between workers and employers. The newspaper continues: "Half the membership of this committee consists of workers elected by ballot and the other half of employers. The chair will rotate between labour and employers and the committee's decisions will be considered final."

The committee proceeded very slowly for the first few months. Al-Ahram's first article on its activities appeared four months after it was created, and then to report that it had done little more than create subcommittees. Nevertheless, it issued a number of resolutions concerning work hours and remuneration. For example, it determined that a working day in the public service sector should be eight hours and in the production sector nine hours, "although it may be reduced to eight hours for jobs entailing physical risk or strain. That will be determined by decree." It also ruled that manufacturing industries could increase the working day by three hours on the condition that workers are paid an extra 10 per cent of the daily wages for each additional hour.

After that, the activities of the committee seemed to grind to a halt until the end of June. Then, the government of Mustafa El- Nahhas was dismissed and replaced with that of Mohamed Mahmoud who, in a bid to present himself as a champion of the workers, moved to inject new life into the committee. Thus, Al-Ahram reports that on 9 August, the committee chairman informed his fellow members that "the prime minister has asked us to speed up the drawing up of the new draft law so that it can be put into effect as soon as possible." The newspaper went on to observe that the committee has gotten a new spurt of energy and "henceforth shall meet every two weeks in order to determine what remains to be done to complete the various sections of the legislation."

With this news, the interest of the public in the labour law also picked up and Al-Ahram readers started to write to the newspaper about their views and recommendations. Typical of such letters was that of Mohamed El-Shafie Radi, appearing in Al-Ahram of 16 August under the headline, "The rights of the worker are sacred." Although Radi addressed many issues, of particular concern to him was the problem of child labour. "We have in Egypt children barely six years old working full days and engaged in the most strenuous of work which drains their strength and debilitates their bodies," he writes. He compares this situation to that in "advanced nations." In France, he writes, children may begin to work at the age of 12 on the condition that they have obtained an elementary school certificate; otherwise the minimum working age is 13. In the US, Belgium, Britain and Switzerland, the minimum working age is not less than 14. He further notes that the lesser developed the country, the lower their official minimum working age. Thus, in Romania it is 11, in Spain 10 and in India nine.

Another major concern was the conditions of working women. In this regard, Radi hoped that the new law would ensure the amelioration of their conditions of work so as to reduce occupational hazards, as well as "to protect them from the worst that could affect their intellectual development."

Perhaps one of the most important breakthroughs of the legislative committee, one achieved after Thabet joined it, was the decision to establish the right to form labour syndicates, although this right would come with the proviso that syndicates would be prohibited from involvement in political and religious affairs and that their activities focus solely on the economic concerns of their members.

It was not long afterwards that the legislative committee completed its task and Al-Ahram could announce to its readers: "The labour law bill in its final draft," the text of which the newspaper published in full. Section I of the draft outlined its general aims and functions. The second section was devoted to contracts and contractual conditions. All employment contracts, it stipulated, had to be in writing, specify the pay and say whether this was fixed in terms of working hours or articles produced, and specify the work premises and whether or not these were in a single location. This section further provided that employees were "not obliged to perform any job not stated in the employment contract." It added that if the duties of the employee were not specifically clarified, he would "be obliged to perform only those tasks that are commensurate with his physical strength and his abilities and that are relevant to the job for which he was contracted."

Section II also addressed conditions covering juvenile employment, stating that juveniles between the ages of 12 and 16 are not required to work more than eight hours a day, may not be contracted for jobs that would expose them to physical danger or hazards to their health and may not be contracted to work night shifts in industrial enterprises.

As for women, they could not be employed in mines, in the manufacture of bombs and explosives or in "premises that sell alcoholic beverages to customers who consume such beverages on the premises." Pregnant women could not be charged with strenuous tasks that would endanger their pregnancy. They were also entitled to a maternity leave of six weeks, the right to determine the dates of this leave, with full salary during maternity leave and security of their positions at work throughout the period of absence.

Employers were further obligated under this law "to maintain complete vigilance and to make the necessary provisions to fully safeguard the morals and good comportment of juveniles and women on the work premises." Another provision intended to uphold morals was one which stipulated that salaries or wages could not be disbursed in nightclubs, restaurants, coffeehouses, hotels, bars or warehouses "except to the employees engaged in such premises."

Article III of the law addressed the mutual obligations of employers and employees. Employers were obligated to ensure the maintenance of safety standards; "to avoid possible injury from the use of tools and machinery" on the premises; and "to take all necessary safety precautions in mines and appropriate measures for waste disposal and ventilation in other hazardous work places to prevent the spread of the diseases and epidemics associated with those places." In order to safeguard the rights of Egyptian workers, this section also stipulated that Egyptians had to constitute 80 per cent of the staff.

In addition to providing that employees had to perform their duties with full care and diligence, it also required them to refrain from any activity that could endanger their colleagues or others, to adhere to proper codes of behaviour and to treat the employer and his representatives "with the necessary consideration and respect." The law prohibited employees from divulging company secrets and cautioned them against theft of company property and against "reporting to work in a state of intoxication or committing any act reprehensible to public morals."

Commenting on the nation's first labour law bill, Al-Ahram observed that it was not enough to have laws on the books; they also had to be put into effect. One imagines that workers in Egypt today still cherish the same hope.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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