Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.
The revolution in Egypt has unleashed a torrent of pent up frustration and protest from Egyptian workers in all walks of life. For weeks, beginning the day after former President Hosni Mubarak resigned, workers have taken to the streets to demand respect for basic worker rights and democratic principles. Their grievances are fundamental and share much in common with their U.S. counterparts now protesting in Wisconsin and elsewhere: the right to bargain collectively with employers over wages, hours, benefits and working conditions. Egyptian workers have been protesting at many worksites all over the country:
- More than 6,000 teachers protested in front of the Education Administration building in the governorate (state) of Qena in Upper Egypt. A majority of teachers are now working under temporary contracts without benefits. Teachers are calling for the end of these temporary contracts that cheapen their profession and cause much professional insecurity.
- Hundreds of workers from the iron and steel factory who were hired as “temporary contractual” workers demanded payment of three months’ worth of overtime and other benefits, and an end to their “temporary” status.
The never-ending “temporary contract” is a tactic to weaken workers’ rights, which has been widely used in both the Egyptian public and private sectors. In response to teacher protests, the new Education Minister did announce on Feb. 28 that the teachers who had been working under temporary contracts for more than three years will be made permanent as long as they are able to pass the teacher proficiency tests, which the Ministry will administer on March 25.
In the last three weeks, there have been many of other strikes, work stoppages and protests:
- In the garment and textile factory in El Mahalla el Kubra (considered the crown jewel of the garment industry), as well as at locations in Helwan (city south of Cairo), more than 20,000 workers have been calling for past-due promotions, wage increases, improvements in benefits and profit-sharing incentives. This garment union is now a member of Egypt’s newly organized Independent Trade Union Federation.
- In the steel-coke manufacturing industries, 3,500 went out on strike and were joined by 5,000 pharmaceutical chemical workers in Alexandria. The issue: the right to organize and bargain collectively. Their demands are economic, yet in their protests, they are focusing attention on the corruption, theft and mismanagement at various worksites. For example,3,000 workers at the Steel Coke Manufacturing plant in Helwan went on strike urging authorities to remove company’s CEO immediately, and to hold all senior management legally accountable for financial mismanagement
Other workers are exposing corruption, blatant theft and swindling at government-owned enterprises. Workers in the gold mine in Marsa Alam (on the Red Sea coast near Sudan) claim that the gold was being siphoned away by management. According to the workers, mine managers locked out Egyptian workers, and were relying on exploited foreign workers to do the work. “Unknown hands," the workers say, recently stole 250 kilograms – around 551 pounds – of gold per day over a period of three days. At today’s prices, that’s more than US$11 million a day. Workers struck the mine in protest over the increased production to protect the wealth of the mine, which has reached 350 kilograms or 770 pounds a day.
Health workers are adding their voices to the protests. Doctors, nurses, administrative staff and health technicians in Madinat Nasr Hospital in Cairo have joined the chorus, calling for: a national minimum wage (in accord with a recent Egyptian high court’s ruling); making temporary/contractual workers jobs permanent; ending the administrative corruption, such as nepotism and biased hiring practices; and protecting the rights of patients and improving patient care.
In all of this, the newly organized Independent Trade Union Federation is taking a leading role and growing stronger every day. The focus is on freedom of association, the right to organize a truly independent trade union federation, and a new labor law that incorporates the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
Workers are continuing to put particular pressure on the Supreme Council of Egyptian Armed Forces – the transition government – to allow freedom of association as a fundamental right and freedom; part of the bedrock of any democracy, which is crucial to all citizens, political parties, businesses, and non-governmental organizations .
The growing strength of the independent unions is an important development for Egypt, and challenges the existence of the pro-Mubarak, official government-organized Egyptian Trade Union Federation. Though many challenges lie ahead, it is with pride and solidarity we recognize that workers are leading the struggle for a new democratic Egypt.