Egypt’s unions struggle after the revolution

Workers in the country’s public and private sectors bear the weight of a flagging economy and a new constitution.

Cairo transport strike leaves passenegrs stranded [Reuters]
Previous one-day transport strikes have left passengers temporarily stranded [REUTERS]

Cairo, Egypt – The revolution came with many promises for people such as Ashraf Mumtaz. A 33-year veteran of Egypt’s national railway service, Mumtaz saw the political upheaval as a moment for Egypt’s working classes to overhaul a corrupt and abusive system of labour laws, where employees are routinely overworked and underpaid in dangerous environments.

Two years later, “nothing has changed”, Mumtaz said. “We are neglected now more than before.”

On May 1, Mumtaz, along with labour organisers and activists, will participate in the nation’s first International Workers’ Day, known in many countries as “Labour Day”, under an elected president and the new constitution since the 2011 ousting of Hosni Mubarak.

In previous years, before Mohamed Morsi was elected president, the day was marked with government-organised ceremonies commemorating Egypt’s public and private workforces.

Since the revolution, there has been no government-led commemoration. Instead, activists and labour organisers have used the holiday as an annual platform to air their grievances with the myriad problems faced by workers here.

Legal battles

“Every Labour Day, we have the same demands,” said Dalia Moussa, a member of the Egyptian Centre for Social and Economic Studies. “Basic things; minimum and maximum wage, money for shut down factories to get back to work, getting work for laid off workers – they just don’t listen.”

According to Moussa, economic instability combined with the policies of the new regime have created a dire situation for working class Egyptians.

“It used to be that making 1,000 pounds ($145) a month was enough, now families have to send their children to work and we are seeing an increase of kids on the street.” 

The revolution brought a heightened awareness of basic labour rights to workers, Moussa explained, but recently elected officials have created an environment which is hostile to union organisers and activists.

Since Morsi assumed power in June 2012, the number of independent unions has risen. However, state legislation is making it increasingly difficult for these unions to exist.

Khaled Al-Azhari was recently appointed minister for the labour force, and is attempting to pass a consitutional amendment which would grant officials “the right to dissolve any union who participates, calls for, or encourages any kind of protesting for workers”, Moussa explained. “Basically, any union calling for workers rights.” 

“We support unions and workers’ rights,” said Reda Sada El-Hafnawy, a member of the Shura Council’s Committee For Human Rights. “The Mubarak regime appointed their people as the union heads. Before the revolution, workers complained and their demands went unheard. Now, we have a complaint system and independent unions.” 

According to El-Hafnawy, the new administration is actively seeking out routes to promote greater dialogue between workers and the state.

El-Hafnawy told Al Jazeera that government officials were working on laws that would define basic rights including a stronger health insurance system, and a minimum and maximum wage. However, Egypt “does not currently have the resources to enforce something like this,” he said.

Other human rights issues, such as child labour and a proper system of working conditions oversight have yet to be tackled. Under the constitution, minors who are employed in the workforce have little legal protection. “Since they do not belong to any union, they can’t be protected by law,” El-Hafnawy explained.

An institutional disconnect

For the past 20 years, Mumtaz has been a member of both the Railway Workers’ syndicate and the train conductors’ union. In his time with these groups, Mumtaz helped to organise labour strikes under both Mubarak and Morsi.

Despite the recent surge of independent unions, Morsi’s administration has created a toxic atmosphere for these groups, activists say. “Every time we try to protest, try to act, they react with violence,” Mumtaz said.
According to Mumtaz, the system of labour activism and legislation is undermined by government actions.

“There is an agreement with the minister of transport to put Muslim Brotherhood people in positions of power,” he said. “They control the conversation we have with the government.”

In November 2012, Mumtaz sent a report to the minister of transport, warning of the dilapidated state of the train tracks near Assuit. Ten days later, several light signals and safety measures on a Luxor-bound train failed. The train crashed into a school bus crossing the tracks, killing 50 children.

“This is what happens with a government that doesn’t listen,” he said.

Business in an unstable economy

Hazem El-Sisi, the Cairo-based owner of a fabric printing factory in Qaliubaya governate, is one of many business owners who had to shut down their operations after the revolution.

Political instability, combined with an unstable economy, has driven foreign investors away from businesses like El-Sisi’s. Instead of looking to export goods, El-Sisi has had to turn to less lucrative local markets.

“After the revolution, we don’t produce. Now I don’t have any income to pay salaries to the people working in my branches,” El-Sisi said. “Everyone with money was thinking first about food and their safety, not about new clothing.”

El-Sisi’s factory employed mostly day workers, who fall outside of the jurisdiction of the Egyptian body of labour laws.

“It doesn’t help me to use day laborers. They have no contract, no insurance, nothing to prove they work for me. In bigger factories they have insurance, contracts, everything. They can’t take advantage of people who have contracts, but they also can’t take advantage of me,” he explained. “It’s not good for me to have irregular workers. They can leave me any day.”

Without a steady source of income, El-Sisi said he was forced to lay off his staff of thirty workers. Like others after the revolution, El-Sisi’s workforce became more educated about their rights. However, El-Sisi explained, rights have little real jurisdiction over the market.

“Most of my workers, they are poor,” he said. 

“They don’t care about worker rights, they care more about money: ‘If you are going to give me fifty pounds a day, I will work under any conditions.'”

Follow Max Siegelbaum on Twitter: @SaxMiegelbaum

Source: Al Jazeera