Egypt's trade unions take on the regime

Egypt's trade unions take on the regime
6 min read
14 January, 2015
The 2011 Egyptian revolution might not have been possible without the collective action of workers. After a series of new laws were used by the regime to suppress the labour movement, there are signs that the workers are fighting back.
Egypt's trade unions have been hit by anti-protest laws [AFP]

According to Egypt's minister of manpower, Nahed Ashry, Egypt witnessed 287 seperate labour protests during 2014, and a total of 115,000 workers had participated in industrial action last year.

This might appear a huge number on paper, but given the figures released by el-Mahrousa Centre for Socioeconomic Development the government's estimate would appear well shy of reflecting the true scale of Egypt's labour movement and actions.

El-Mahrousa reported that last year there were 2,274 instances of industrial action in Egypt, and the number of strikes that took place in February 2014 alone was greater than the annual figure given by the government.

Fiddling the figures

The reason for this huge discrepancy is that the ministry of manpower limits its count only to cases of industrial action where organisers notified the ministry and the dispute was resolved by the government.

Naturally, this was not the conclusion of the majority of strikes and protests in Egypt, and el-Mahrousa Centre’s estimates appear much closer to reality.

The economic unrest in Egypt comes as a new minimum wage was introduced last year. On 1 January 2014, the government raised the minimum monthly pay packet from 700 Egyptian pounds ($98) to 1,200 Egyptian pounds ($167). However, workers were left disappointed when they found out this would only apply to public sector workers.

Thus, as prices for basic commodities in the country continued to climb, textile, transport, health, and other workers in the private sector organised strikes for a fair wage.

El-Mahrousa estimates that 250,000 workers took industrial action in February alone. Although these figures do not correspond with the official figures, the fact that former Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi and his cabinet resigned in April 2014 suggests that the centre’s figure is closer to representing the full scale of labour dissatisfaction.

Yet even the figures for 2014 saw a sharp drop compared to previous years. In 2012, the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights reported that there were 38,000 cases of industrial action, and that the number rose again in 2013.

Action against the system

There is no accurate system for monitoring and tracking labour protests in Egypt, making estimates of both the government and non-profit organisation's unreliable. This is not just down to faults in the methods of monitoring and documenting protests, but also due to the nature of the labour movement in Egypt itself.

Large numbers of labour protests in Egypt are organised outside the umbrella of labour unions, and do not follow a formal route for negotiations. They start and finish without being documented by the government, human rights organisations, or even the media.

Although it is difficult to establish, it appears that the rate of labour protests in Egypt might have decreased significantly recently.

Is it not enough just to look at the number of labour protests in one year to understand whether Egypt's labour movement has been successful or not. To do that, one has to look at the prevailing conditions in the country, such as the security and political environment that workers are living in.

The rate of labour strikes in previous years were certainly higher than in 2014, but to understand why we have to take into consideration the environment that the labour movement finds itself in now, compared to 2013 and earlier.

Outlawing protest

2014 saw a radical transformation in Egypt's political and security situation, particularly after the coup on 3 July 2013. This event marked a state of political polarisation in Egypt that has continued, and as a result all opposition has been denounced. Any protest movements, regardless of its composition, is considered to be a part of a "Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy".

Egypt’s state-run and private media have taken every possible opportunity to challenge any form of opposition to Abdel al-Fatah al-Sisi's rule. Even the labour leaders who organised strikes during Morsi's presidency were accused of being part of the Brotherhood, when they organised labour action in 2014.

     The labour movement played a pivotal role in the build up to the revolution in 2011, and subsequent protests.

The security situation has also not worked in the favour of labour unions. Anti-protest laws introduced in 2013 were a serious obstacle to the labour movement, so much so that labour leaders were arrested for trying to get permission to hold labour protests. The police used force to disperse protesting workers, firing into crowds with birdshot pellets and rubber bullets during sit-ins.

The problems didn't end there for the workers. Unions were also affected by a split within the labour movement as leaders worked against independent action. After a roadmap was announced on 3 July the leaders of the independent unions launched "the labour code of ethics", which was effectively an oath of allegiance to the new government, pledging an end to all labour strikes.

In this context, certainly our estimates on the size and power of labour unions will vary significantly. But we also saw a drop in strikes correspond with a general decline in protests in Egypt.

Even demonstrations by the opposition on the anniversary of the revolution in 2014 were violently suppressed. Tahrir Square, which has been a symbol of the revolution, was closed to opposition demonstrations and was only opened to pro-government celebrations. Even the Anti-Coup Alliance which demanded that Morsi come back to power saw a huge decline in its size, influence and reach last year.

The labour movement played a pivotal role in the build up to the revolution in 2011 and subsequent protests. A general strike on April 6, 2008, which began in the large industrial and agricultural city of al-Mahalla al-Kubra, and the establishment of independent trade unions, had a clear impact on Egyptian society and power.

When labour movements stepped up their industrial action following the departure of Hosni Mubarak, calling for the purging of remnants of the old regime from state institutions and better worked conditions, they continued the revolutionary spirit in Egypt.

Readdressing the numbers

Rather than question the numbers, it might be more appropriate to ask what will happen to Egypt if workers are not able to play the same role as before. The answer to this all depends on the policies the government decides to follow and how new laws will impact on workers' conditions.

To see what steps the government might take next then one only needs to look at the unrest caused by the minimum wage law. Delays in paying salaries to workers have also led to strikes in al-Ghazl textile factory, steel and iron companies and el-Nasr Company for Coke and Chemicals.

It appears that the government is committed to continuing with the same divisive policies, which just add to the pressures workers endure. Austerity laws that are biased towards investors, special privileges and benefits to business leaders, are all trends that will see the labour movement get back on to the streets .

Although leaders of the labour movement announced an end to strikes in Egypt, onsite unions have continued to play a prominent role in organising and leading strikes. Despite the confusion in the labour movement after 3 July, and the media's blanket denunciation of all forms of opposition, workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company managed to coordinate a simultaneous strike in several provinces, setting an important precedent in the labour movement in the country.

These simple examples show that the Egyptian labour movement’s recent actions are advancing the cause to a new level of awareness and organisation. Their call for change might have slipped out of public view in recent times, due to the government's clamp down on protest, but the labour movement's past achievements are likely to reappear at any time.

Just as the unions were the backbone of the revolution that deposed Mubarak and created a new age for Egypt, so again the labour movement might bring about change in the country again.