The challenges facing Egyptian labor

Egyptian socialist and journalist Mostafa Ali looks at the prospects for workers' struggle in the period after Mohamed Morsi's victory, in an article written for Ahram Online.

Striking public transit workers rally for their demands after Mubarak's downfall (Hossam el-Hamalawy)Striking public transit workers rally for their demands after Mubarak's downfall (Hossam el-Hamalawy)

A WAVE of renewed workers' struggles--including a number of strikes in key industrial sectors--hit Egypt in the days following the election of Mohamed Morsi as president of the country in June.

The timing of the strikes reflected the fact that millions of poor and working Egyptians hold high expectations that Morsi--who defeated the Mubarak-era general Ahmed Shafiq--will fulfill his pledge to fight for the January 25 Revolution goals of "bread, freedom and social justice."

In fact, strikes, sit-ins and workers protests fell in the months of April and May, according to the labor rights research center Walad-Al-Ard. Workers were waiting out the intense presidential race, which dominated the country's political scene, to see which president they might be able to pressure for demands.

In the month of Morsi's election, two major workers struggles exploded, forcing themselves into the public discourse and all media outlets.

In Mahalla el-Kubra--the historic citadel of Egypt's textile industry, which still employs 20 percent of all industrial workers--24,000 public-sector workers went on strike June 15 at the state-owned Mahalla Misr Spinning and Weaving, the first strike since 2011. They put forward a host of grievances with regard to wages, benefits and medical care and demanded the firing of the CEO of the holding company.

Secondly, less than four days after Morsi was inaugurated, 1,500 Ceramica Cleopatra workers took their one-year-long battle against Mubarak-era tycoon Mohamed Aboul Enein from Suez to the presidential palace in Cairo. At the doors of the palace, they demanded that the government force Aboul Enein to meet the terms of prior agreements, the last of which was brokered in the spring and granted workers concessions on profit-sharing, wages and working conditions.

Meanwhile, dozens of smaller worker sit-ins and strikes, which have been a stable feature since the fall of Mubarak, are floating in the background of the Mahalla and Ceramica work stoppages.

These smaller actions by groups of workers, whose numbers vary from tens to hundreds, can be broadly divided into four general categories:

1) Strikes by government workers/clerks to achieve better wages and working conditions by switching affiliation from one ministry to another. The recent strike by the staff at the Real Estate Notary Agency for higher salaries and against continued affiliation to the Ministry of Justice is an example of this type of struggle, which has mushroomed across various state administrative agencies since the fall of Mubarak.

2) Workers' protests in various state agencies or state-owned companies to gain promised wage increases that could allow them to reach the monthly minimum wage of 700 Egyptian pounds. The government conceded this minimum wage in 2011, but habitually fails to deliver on time, if at all.

3) Widespread struggles by temporary workers to win full-time and permanent status after languishing for years under conditions of low wages and job insecurity.

The plight of temporary workers at the Torah Cement Company in Helwan, south of Cairo, is a case in point. The company employs 1,200 workers and was 80 percent privatized in 2005. Hundreds of Torah workers have worked in the company for as long as 17 years under temporary contracts. In early July, the temporary workers occupied the factory to demand permanent contracts. The strikers kept the machines running from July 11 to July 25--but then, to force the owners to listen, pulled the plug on production lines, thus cutting off 30 percent of the cement supply to the Egyptian market.

4) Struggles to force private capital, including foreign investors, to respect labor laws and basic workers rights, as minimal as they are in Egypt.

For example, in the industrial city of Kafr el-Dawar in the northeast Delta, hundreds of workers have been fighting to force the management of Tetco to reopen the factory. The Turkish-owned textile company closed the factory in the spring in order to avoid paying years-overdue bonuses and profits to workers. The workers are also demanding that the management recognize their elected union and rescind a decision to terminate nine of its leaders. Tetco workers tried to take their grievances to the Turkish Consulate in Alexandria, as well as the Ministry of Labor Power, but to no avail.

Meanwhile, Tetco management refuses to restart operations until workers sign addendums to previous contracts stipulating that the company owes them almost nothing. At this point, representatives of the ministry recommended that workers sign the addendums to at least regain their jobs--while local representatives in the dissolved parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood informed locked-out workers that there is no one to pressure, because the investor is a foreign body.

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DESPITE ALL the variations in workers' demands, all recent workplace actions, from the largest to the smallest, in the public or private sectors, share two common features:

1) They stem almost universally from the inability or unwillingness of employers to concede or deliver promised reforms on longstanding grievances that date back to the year, or even years, before the outbreak of the January 25 Revolution.

2) Most labor protests put forward demands aimed at pressuring successive post-Mubarak governments, from Essam Sharaf to Kamal El-Ganzouri, to at least partially revise the free-market, neoliberal policies of the Mubarak era that rely on high levels of exploitation of labor by curbing wages and job security.

Both governments since the ouster of Mubarak have acquiesced, under pressure from workers, and granted some reforms. These touch on the issue of wages (such as 15 percent annual bonuses at the beginning of fiscal years) and the question of job security for a small portion of temporary labor (conceding full-time status to clerks in the administrative section of the state machinery).

But Egyptian leaders have refused to deviate in principle from an overall commitment to neoliberalism. They therefore show more intransigence toward any demands that challenge the heart of a free-market approach. The mentality of that approach today centers on the idea of austerity as the only the solution to crisis--translation: stay away from raising taxes on the rich and make workers tighten their belts and pay for the economic crisis.

This intransigence on the part of employers toward workers' demands--which is not necessarily a result of the financial inability of employers to spend money for this or that demand--means bosses always take a number of hard-line positions on certain issues.

These are issues that are important to labor, but threaten the neoliberal consensus among both politicians (liberal or Islamist) and employers: no universal granting of permanent status to temporary workers, no commitment to free health care for all, no progressive tax system, no discussion of a living wage and, of course, no serious attempt to implement the minimum wage in the 19 million workers-strong private sector.

Given this overall context, the Mahalla and Ceramica Cleopatra disputes, despite their high-profile status, represent the norm in the current labor-capital standoff, and not unique cases.

The Mahalla and Ceramica Cleopatra workers, like most strikers and labor protesters elsewhere, were not attempting to gain radical new ground. They were simply acting on a heightened level of expectations of a better life after the fall of Mubarak and restating to bosses their insistence on the fulfillment of past promises and implementation of tangible economic reforms to improve their standard of living.

The resistance on the part of the government and employers to the attempts by workers to challenge the logic of neoliberalism has been reflected in a slow and partial shift in tactics by the bosses. They went from quickly granting demands in order to placate labor--for example, by sending army officers in the first half of 2011 to speedily impose settlements on capital in order to end strikes as fast as possible--to rejecting demands; ignoring previous promises; dragging out strikes; and using intimidation and violence, either by the state or hired goons, to discourage workers from fighting in the first place, and to crush strikes when they do happen.

In the case of the Ceramica Cleopatra dispute, for example, despite signing agreements to meet workers' demands on more than one occasion over the past year, Aboul Enein sensed no actual will from the state to force him to comply. So he regularly informed workers at the conclusion of every round of negotiations that he would cede nothing of what was just agreed upon, even before his signature on the settlement papers was dry.

The management of Torah Cement, meanwhile, hired armed goons to terrorize strikers and attempted to force open the factory in mid-July. At a strike at the Sanoli textile factory in Mahalla, the company encouraged armed thugs to open fire on strikers, killing one of the laborers, Ahmad Hosni. Back in Suez, during the last strike at Ceramica Cleopatra, the government sent central security forces to use tear gas to disperse the workers who had stormed the governorate headquarters.

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ON FEBRUARY 11, the one-year anniversary of the revolution, when a small group of activists made an online call for workers to carry out a general strike against military rule, the Egyptian working class unanimously boycotted the call.

Back in the winter, most workers wanted to give the newly elected parliament a chance to enact reforms to improve health coverage, recognize union rights, increase wages and salaries, and grant permanent status to temporary labor.

However, the now-dismantled parliament failed to act on most major causes of concern to workers. Labor activist Fatma Ramadan, vice president of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, pointed out that the Islamist-led parliament failed to even produce a draft law that could honor workers' right to form unions.

Disappointed by parliament, workers waited for the election of a president who could deliver on longstanding grievances. Many workers who flocked to the presidential palace in Cairo in the aftermath of Morsi's election to hand in grievances to the Brotherhood candidate said publicly that they voted for him, not a Mubarak-man, believing Morsi might listen.

But Ramadan points out that the road workers will have to travel in order to force Morsi to respect their agenda will be no smoother than the dead-end parliament road. This is because the president's own program avoids clear answers on key issues such as temporary labor or the right to organize. It insists on neoliberal commitments to improve opportunities for businessmen.

The likely adherence of Morsi's newly appointed cabinet, led by Hesham Qandil, to the policies of the free market--at the expense of workers' wages and job security--will most certainly dash the hopes many have in Morsi's reform credentials. It will also push struggling workers to search for political alternatives.

On May 1, the international workers' holiday, this year, labor activist and analyst Hisham Fouad pointed out that while economic conditions and high expectations propel workers to struggle, labor will face real challenges to assert its interests at the current moment. Two key shortcomings in the labor movement partially tie workers' hands.

The first problem is structural weaknesses in union organization that prevent workers from waging effective battles against employers.

For one, the movement is divided between three competing and mutually hostile federations: the official Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which is still under the control of conservative Mubarak-era labor bureaucrats; the Democratic Federation of Egyptian Workers (DFE), which is centrist in approach; and the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FIU), which organizes newly unionized sections of labor.

The competition between these federations over membership is currently paralyzing one of the most militant sections of the working class, the bus drivers in Cairo, as union leaders quibble over whether to maintain affiliation in the FIU or join the DFE.

The second problem is the failure of workers, since the fall of Mubarak, to form a labor party that could articulate a program defending the general interests of workers. A party would provide them with an organ through which to press their demands in the political arena. This failure means that workers have little or no voice at all in parliament, the cabinet or the constitution-drafting process--and therefore can't challenge the continued monopoly of businessmen over political life.

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DESPITE THESE weaknesses--or perhaps to overcome them--workers in some sectors revived old-style labor solidarity to wage more effective battles against employers. For example, the Mahalla workers were aided in their last strike against the government by support from all seven major public-sector textile companies. They struck to support Mahalla's demands, specifically the removal of the CEO of their overarching holding company.

Similarly, Ceramica Cleopatra in Suez fighting against Aboul Enein were able to count on a sympathy strike by co-workers in the company's branches in Ain-Sokhna and 10th of Ramadan.

And the Torah Cement strike couldn't be broken by the employer or hired thugs because of the solidarity of permanent workers with the demands of temporary contract laborers.

Workers' persistence in pursuing high expectations meant that the workers in Mahalla and at Ceramica and Torah extracted some concessions through strikes. However, capital's policy of intransigence in the face of threats to its free-market dogma meant that the government refused to dump the CEO in the Mahalla case, and Aboul Enein refused to pay up the huge sums he owes to workers from the latest signed settlement.

More intense battles are likely to erupt between labor and capital--in both the state and private sectors--in the months to come.

Labor will have to overcome political and organizational weaknesses if it is to stand a chance against an employing class leaning on a state apparatus designed to force workers into submission to the terms set by capital. This ruling class is now counting on a business-friendly government led by the Brotherhood to facilitate a return of business as usual.

First published at Ahram Online.