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Egypt's working class hit hard by turmoil

As the election nears, candidates are being tested on how they plan to fix the hardships faced by the labour movement.

Last updated: 23 May 2014 11:32
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Years of gradually increasing contempt among workers have been mostly apolitical, in demand for better livings [AFP]

Hesham Abu Zeid, a worker at Egypt’s Tanta Flax and Oil company, was forced to retire by the new company owner in 2010, yet he still joins the remaining 170 workers protesting at the headquarters.

"Our chants and problems are still the same, and, more than ever, we have little faith anything will change," Abu Zeid told Al Jazeera ahead of presidential elections, in which the two running candidates are both claiming improvised socialist platforms.

"Abdel Nasser repeatedly said factories are for workers, not for gangs of capitalists," echoed the chants around the company's offices during protests in 2005. The call still rings out today, but from fewer voices and with spirits much dampened.

Established in 1954 by leftist president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the company was sold off for lower than its market value in 2005 to a Saudi investor, as part of a wider privatisation tide stirred by then-president Hosni Mubarak. More than 1,100 of its staff have lost their jobs since. Egyptian courts have ruled the sale illegal, twice, due to alleged irregularities in the deal, yet workers say successive governments ignored the rulings.

The lingering plight of Abu Zeid and his colleagues mirrors that of millions of workers aggravated by decades of irregular economic policies and negligence of the labour force. Little has changed for them since the 2011 revolution.


IN VIDEO: Can Egypt's next president fix the economy?


As the country's second presidential race since the 2011 uprising kicks off, questions have been raised concerning how candidates plan to deal with the hardships faced by Egypt's labour movement - whose demand for social justice has been shelved for years, and whose living conditions continue to deteriorate amid ongoing unrest.

According to a study by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the percentage of public sector workers below the poverty line rose from 11 percent in the fiscal year 2008-2009 to 13 percent in 2012-2013. As for the private sector, the figure fell from 21 percent to 16 percent in the same period.

While left-wing candidate Hamdeen Sabahi has included labourers in his electoral tours, promising to pay heed to their demands, front-runner Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former army chief, has stressed the need to put an end to protests, including those by the working class, as a key step to boost a stagnant economy.

Talking in his first televised interview, Sisi asked those partaking in "factional demonstrations" to be patient "until things improved." He then added, "if your target is to gain, I don't have anything to give you. It's not that I don't want to, I just have nothing to offer. Do you want to eat Egypt up? Do you want to kill it?" 

Before the 2011 uprising, job insecurity, mass firings in newly privatised companies, income disparity, corruption, tiny wages, and soaring inflation all drove Egypt's labour movement to the streets.

In the decade leading to business-backed Mubarak's overthrow, between two and four million workers participated in no fewer than 3,400 acts of protest. Although hardly backed by any political or organisational representation, the levels of resentment among Egypt's working class fuelled the calls for change.

"Workers deserve more credit for Mubarak's ouster than they are typically given," wrote Joel Beinin, professor of Middle East history at Stanford University.

But in the months following the January 25 popular uprising, protests by workers from both public and private sectors exploded. In 2012, 1,400 protests were staged by about 600,000 workers. In 2013, records were broken with 2,400 rallies taking place in the first quarter, according to the Egyptian Centre for Social and Economic Rights (ECESR).

Even when oppressive measures were taken by the military-installed government, including the widely condemned anti-protest law which forced many political activists off the streets, workers remained undeterred. According to a recent ECESR report, of 354 protests staged in the first quarter of 2014, 249 were labour-driven.


RELATED: The labour movement and the future of democracy in Egypt 


As part of a nationwide euphoria following the 2011 revolt, millions of labourers were swept with hopes of higher salaries, permanent contracts, better allowances, improved health conditions, educational services and other benefits. Many even unrealistically believed that public funds embezzled by Mubarak's regime would be reclaimed and distributed among them. But along with political reforms, these social demands remain unmet.

So what are the workers' spoils from a revolt of which they were meant to be the key beneficiaries?

"There are essentially no gains in the area of rights," Beinin told Al Jazeera. "The Trade Union Freedom Law has not been enacted and is not likely to be in any form that is favourable to independent trade unions."

The enforcement of this law was among the pledges made by Sabahi, who has a long record of supporting workers' rights. He also promised to enact the long-popular demand of minimum and maximum public sector wages in a manner that would guarantee social justice.

While attempting to placate the working classes, stopping at labourers' gatherings as part of his campaign tour and promising them the right to negotiate salaries amid rising inflation, Sisi has made no promises. He has repeatedly said that protests must end in order for the country's economy to pick up.

Since February 2011, the 1957 Trade Union Federation has had its monopoly on workers' representation broken by two independent trade union federations, as well as the establishment of hundreds of small new trade unions. Beinin described many of them as weak and in legal limbo amid the absence of legislatory protection. "Still, their existence is an achievement," Beinin said.

Another small achievement was the establishment of a $172 minimum monthly wage to public sector workers, a demand popular long before it was mandated by a court ruling in 2010 - and subsequently ignored.

"Egypt's labour movement is not steady-paced, nor is it politically driven," she concluded. "It may slow down, but it builds up. It may not be what rocks Sisi's throne, but it will surely delegitimise his powers - just like it did with Morsi, and Mubarak before him."

Dalia Mousa, ECESR coordinator,

It was promised by the military-installed government following Morsi's ousting, in a bid to appear more populist than the former president - who many workers accused of focusing on empowering his political group at their expense. Millions of workers joined in protests that led to his overthrow in July 2013, but many remain disappointed.

Dalia Mousa, ECESR's coordinator of workers' issues, said the cash-strapped government fell short. "Not everyone under the law ultimately received the raise, and with private sector employees excluded, the outcome is soaring food prices and subsidies-cutting measures, which together worsen already-difficult living conditions," she said.

According to Beinin: "The main achievement for workers is the one they share with all Egyptians: they found their voices and their power. I don't believe people will forget so quickly how liberating these experiences were."

Abu Zeid agreed. "Our place is on the ground, in protests," he said. "We have learned not to believe promises they make."

Mousa said that this government and the ones that will follow will not get away with the carrot-and-stick policy previously used on workers.

"Sisi's popularity will quickly wear off the more mistakes he makes - and he will make many," she said. "So far, the Sisi-backed government has passed a law barring third parties from legally challenging government contracts, a move it deemed essential to lure back escaping investors. However, activists see it as a step to immunise the government after at least eleven Mubarak-era contracts were rescinded by courts for irregularities."

Interim president Adly Mansour has also said the country may go back to selling off state-owned properties, a U-turn on a three-year halt of the practice.

"They're re-walking the same path, focusing on means to beef up their economy at the expense of diminished social justice and increased corruption," Mousa said, adding that violence in dealing with workers' protests had not been much of an issue until recently. "Police dogs, brutal beatings and besieging of protesting workers are all new means the authorities are unashamedly allowing employers to use," she said.

"The military and its civilian front-men will make every effort to diminish the political influence of workers... and reframe the broader demands for social justice in ways that do not challenge the neoliberal restructuring of the Egyptian economy," Beinin added.

Abu Zeid agreed, but admitted that many of his colleagues would be voting for Sisi. "Many workers just go with the flow, endorsing who is being framed as the winner. They won't cheer for a losing horse," he explained.

Mousa added: "It was never about politics for the working class." She recalled the little support given in the 2012 presidential race to Khalid Ali, a left-wing lawyer who won many labourers' battles he spearheaded in courts.

"Egypt's labour movement is not steady-paced, nor is it politically driven," she concluded. "It may slow down, but it builds up. It may not be what rocks Sisi's throne, but it will surely delegitimise his powers - just like it did with Morsi, and Mubarak before him."

Follow Dahlia Kholaif on Twitter: @Dee_Kholaif

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Al Jazeera
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