A group of middle-aged men lie sprawled on the sidewalk outside a towering building in Egypt’s Nasr City, shading their faces with newspapers. For 15 days these oil and gas workers have been staging a sit-in, demanding that their petrochemical employer give back the jobs that they abruptly lost before their nation’s revolution.
“We are demanding to return to our old work because we don’t have any other way to make money,” says protester Hamouda Mohammed.
Back in downtown Cairo, Qasr Al Eini Street, lined with banks, hospitals and government buildings stretching south from Tahrir Square, has become ‘protesters’ row’. Since the uprising that swept the nation on January 25 and toppled President Hosni Mubarak in mid-February, teachers, lawyers, doctors and others can be found here most days, waving Egyptian flags and holding homemade posters, partaking in Egypt’s nationwide wave of labor strikes.
Week after week, protests, sit-ins and strikes continue to be staged across post-revolution Egypt; Kamal Abbas, director of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS), a 20-year-old non-profit group, says that nearly one million workers were involved in labor strikes between the start of the revolution and mid-May, (although this figure could not be independently verified).
Experts say the strikes span all sectors of the economy, from textiles to agriculture to oil and gas and include both private and public workers. Strikes have been held from Aswan in the south to Alexandria along the northern coastline and the Suez Canal in the east.
Roots of the labor movement
The stronghold of the labor movement has long been in the Nile Delta, in the industrial city of El Mahalla El Kubra. The labor force in Egypt today consists of roughly 23 million citizens, almost one third of the nation’s more than 80 million people, with the largest sector of employment being agriculture, followed by industrial manufacturing.
The country has a long history of labor action dating as far back as the time of the pyramid builders under the rule of the Pharaohs. While the country has witnessed an up-tick in strikes since the revolution this year, today’s movement is rooted in decades of labor issues and uprisings whose modern history dates back a century.
In 1919, an Egyptian political figure named Sa’d Zaghlul attempted to attend the Paris Peace Conference with his colleagues to demand freedom from the grip of British occupation following World War I. Zaghlul and two others were arrested and later deported, leading to mass strikes among labor groups and workers — an event that led the way to Egyptian independence three years later, in 1922. This movement developed into a nationalist party that later became known as Wafd.
Workers in the early 1900s faced harsh working conditions and lacked a legal federation for the nation’s rapidly forming unions, which became regulated by the state in the 1940s. This continued with little substantive improvement until the government formed a labor federation in 1957 that was later reorganized and named the Egyptian Trade Union Federation in 1961. The federation represents roughly two and a half million people from the private and public sectors in 23 different syndicates. But many say the federation is simply an arm of the government and that it lacks independence and autonomy. Until January 30, it was the only trade union federation for workers in the country.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, labor movements ebbed and flowed, often with nationalistic reverberations. Then in the 1960s, under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, an unwritten agreement was reached between the labor movement and the government; workers would be guaranteed lifetime employment, which included acceptable living wages and non-wage benefits such as job security, in return for workers’ compliance.
“People had the idea that the government was responsible for getting them a good job, an apartment, helping them [afford to] get married, and be educated and have good health services — this has been the idea for some time,” says Ahmed Kamaly, associate professor and chair of the economics department at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
But over time, the system reneged on those promises. Beginning with the liberalization of the economy in the mid-1970s, benefits and subsidies were slowly reduced. With the large-scale privatizations of state-owned Egyptian companies that began in the early 2000s, employment was no longer guaranteed; workers faced private owners bent on streamlining payrolls, sparking a new wave of protests.
According to a 2010 report by the Solidarity Center, a United States-based non-governmental organization that assists workers around the globe, there were more than 1.7 million protesters involved in demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins and gatherings across public and private sectors from 2004 to 2008. More than half a million of those were in 2008 alone.
“There [have been] many years of neglect of labor relations and a failure of old representatives, so now there is no running away from the fact that we need to take matters seriously and rewrite the labor law,” says Mona Said, an expert in labor market issues and an associate professor at AUC.
Wages remain the chief impetus behind labor action in Egypt where, as of May 31, the minimum wage was 118 Egyptian pounds per month (less than $20). Another major point of contention for workers is job security. Experts say some companies force workers to sign resignation forms before they begin employment; should an employee file a complaint with the Ministry of Labor after being unfairly dismissed, the employer can simply show the ministry the resignation form, putting an end to the case. Without alternative options, or a protective government, the workers are pressured to sign the forms.
Revolution, labor and economics
The labor movement played an important role in sparking and sustaining the nation’s revolution. One of the instigators of the political uprising was the April 6 Youth Movement, which started as a Facebook group in 2008 to support workers who were planning to strike on April 6 of that year in El Mahalla El Kubra. Labor strikes continued over the next few years. Then, as thousands descended on Tahrir Square in late January, workers across the country quickly mobilized, bringing their nation’s economy to a halt. Banks closed, textile mills shut down and even transportation was affected by the strikes.
While experts say the number of strikes has since dropped following those fateful days, the lingering revolutionary spirit continues to invigorate workers to take action to see that their demands be addressed.
The economy has been left reeling in the wake of the revolution — the Economist Intelligence Unit estimates gross domestic product growth to be just 1.2 percent in 2011, as of mid June the stock market index was down 22 percent on the year, the tourism sector lost well more than half a billion dollars in the first quarter and net foreign currency reserves had contracted some $13 billion on the year to the end of May. In May the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, Egypt’s official statistics body, reported that the unemployment rate had reached 11.9 percent — some 3.1 million people — though Labor Minister Ahmed al-Boraie was later quoted in Al Ahram as saying true unemployment was likely to be much higher. The current political uncertainty combined with labor unrest has also shaken the markets, economists say, slowing both foreign and domestic investment.
“No investor is going to invest with this level of uncertainty, not only in terms of politics, but also in terms of the workers,” says AUC’s Kamaly. “At any time you can go to the streets and have a demonstration, and no one will tell you ‘Don’t do that’.”
Thus, while many of those on strike have legitimate grievances, their continuing labor action could hardly have come at a worse time for a country trying to rebuild its economy, and may be self-defeating. The strikes are contributing to a general loss of economic activity that leaves employers short of the revenues needed to meet strikers’ demands.
The interim ruling military council has imposed an anti-strike law intended to quell demonstrations, sit-ins and protests, but activists and workers have generally defied the ruling as they continue to voice their grievances.
“I do think strikes negatively affect the economy, but people don’t know what else to do,” says Hani Kheir, while standing outside the Petroleum Ministry one afternoon last month, demanding that the government give him a job. “It’s the only way to relieve their tension and at the same time ask for their demands.”
“I don’t see any changes after the revolution,” says Karem Saber Ibrahim, executive director of the Land Center for Human Rights, an Egyptian NGO. “The salaries are the same, contracts are the same, days off are the same, the lack of vacations and holidays are the same.”
He, like so many people on strike, doesn’t believe demonstrations affect the economy.
“The thing that affects the economy is the thieves,” he says. “The government has failed us and has not helped develop the country.”