In spite of the Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi regime’s persistent crackdown on all kinds of dissent, labour unrest continues in defiance of the 2013 law banning protests. The law was passed after the military-backed overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi.
Egypt saw 493 industrial actions between January and April 2016 year amounting to an average of six actions every day, according to Egyptian NGO Democracy Meter. The same human rights group documented 1,117 strikes and protests across the country in 2015, with an average of three daily labour actions.
Labour protests are typically driven by disputes over low wages and late payment of salaries, unpaid bonuses, grievances regarding lack of job security and poor working conditions.
“Egypt has suffered from stagnation of growth for years, industrial and factory workers see their wages getting lower since decades, yet the government is doing nothing to counterbalance that,” said Omar Ghannam, Budget Programme Officer at the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR).
The budget officer pointed to shock factors to the Egyptian market, such as the decline in purchasing power following gradual devaluation of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar, and the high increase in inflation rates due to lack of dollar availability since the 2011 uprising and subsequent political unrest that drove away foreign investors.
In late July, the Egyptian currency hit a record low of LE13 per US dollar on parallel market, compared to the official rate of LE8.78.Earlier in March, the pound was devalued by about 14.5%.
According to Mohamed Gad, economic journalist at Aswat Masriya, acute dollar shortage is hindering trade putting more pressure on the central bank to devalue the currency for the second time this year, and pushing prices up. Imported goods are consequently more expensive.
“All this is creating social pressure, of course. It’s hard to expect the situation will ease in the coming months unless these structural problems – slow growth and inflation –are fixed,” Gad commented.
“Egypt has achieved political stability and security, but has not yet achieved economic stability,” former finance minister Ahmed Galal reportedly stated in a lenders’ conference in late July.
The recent dollar crisis coupled with the plunge in the local currency aganst the dollar’s value have put a lot of strain on factories since much of Egypt’s imports comes from raw material for production, resulting in higher manufacturing costs, lesser production and slowdown.
While many industrial sites are forced to close down or halt their activity, Ghannam explained, other plants have survived such disruption through cuts to labour costs, essentially salary cuts where factory managers will face less resistance since workers are largely un-protected by their unions –mostly inefficient and controlled by the state–and harassed by security forces if they demonstrate.
With prices continuing to rise and salaries staying the same, many Egyptian workers are pressing for very basic rights, like living wages, better conditions and safe workplaces.
“Left alone fighting, workers resort to sit-ins, rallies, partial strikes, whatever they can to voice their demands,” the ECESR researcher noted.
Stalled companies and faltering industries cutting down on wages have led to industrial actions nationwide in reaction to worsening work conditions and insufficient pay.
One noteworthy recent case comes from Alexandria. In late May, workers from the Alexandria Shipyard Company held sit-ins at the port.Set up as a state-owned facility in the 1970s, the company was taken over by the Ministry of Defense in 2007. Mismanagement, reduced workload and deteriorated pay pushed most of the 2,500 employees to mobilise.
Demands included payment of the national minimum wage (LE1,200 per month), annual Ramadan bonuses, overdue profit shares, health insurance. In addition, they called for the reoperation of stalled production lines and dismissal of the company’s chief administrator.
In response, security forces clamped down on the sit-in and the workers’ demands were rejected. The company was shut without notice on May 24, ECESR lawyer Mohamed Awad recounted, with army units deployed to prevent employees from entering the workplace. 26 workers are standing military trial on charges of striking and inciting strikes.
The company’s administrators and military prosecutors accused the protesters of obstructing production, which in turn caused the lockout.
However, Awad claimed the defendants had not engaged in any kind of work stoppage or anything that could have obstructed operations. Alexandria Shipyard administration, instead, halted operations as a result of the closure imposed by company authorities and military police.
Suzanne Nada, Alexandria-based coordinator of ECESR workers’ unit, cited other labour battles.
Old equipment is a drag
Protests were organised between 2014 and 2015 by workers of Bolivar Spinning and Weaving Company and Vestia Companyin Alexandria. Like other spinning and weaving companies around the country, they were made half state-owned and half privatised. Citing a financial crisis, the management pressured workers by delaying and cutting their salaries, stopping import of material, laying off a part of the workforce, with plans to sell the company’s land holdings.
Nada observed that ever since the time of Anwar Sadat, a well-known government policy has been to make a large number of companies fully or semi-privatised, which has resulted in gains gradually going to the private investor, production losses for the former state-run company, pay cuts and dismissals. The company employer would not invest in new equipment, which in turn increases production costs, given that many factories in Egypt operate with high consumption old machinery, forcing the company to shut down.
Instead,selling the company’s land is more profitable as the investor would buy and resell the land for real estate at a much higher price. Over the years, the Egyptian state has thus proved to act in the interest of businessmen, not for its own benefit.
Workers from the Nile Cotton Ginning Company were demonstrating in May-end in Cairo outside the Parliament building and cabinet headquarters. They held a round of labour actions in the last four years against unpaid wages and state failure to implement a court verdict that had invalidated the privatisation of their company in 2011, and ordered reopening of the company under state administration.
Employees in the Endowments Ministry were striking in March outside its branch office in Giza, calling for improved wages and working conditions. Many of the state-employed workers do not receive the minimum wage, some earn just half, several of them have invalid employment contracts, according to sources.
Also in March, private transport company drivers went on an ongoing strike in Aswan over the termination of their licences by the governor. Aswan public sector street cleaners organised an extended strikeseeking full-time contracts, as they are reportedly employed on part-time contracts, which deprive them of rights, including bonuses, the right to join trade unions, adequate insurance or pension plan.
From Alexandria to Aswan, labour unrest continues in Egypt,primarily in public sector companies. The scale and frequency of actions have clearly declined since adoption of the protest law.Nevertheless, workers continue to challenge legal restrictions, state repression and security clampdown for simply attempting to take their rights back.
Unrest and causes
By no means have these actions impacted the state of Egypt’s economy.
After the 2011 revolution,a rhetoric that vilified workers for causing economic slowdown spread quickly in the local media, and dismissed labour demands as ‘sectorial’ or ‘narrow’ interests, detrimental to the country’s well-being.
“It’s a broken narrative, strikes do not harm the Egyptian economy – it’s the opposite– they are the effect of deteriorating economy, not the cause,” argued Ghannam.
“The labour movement is not responsible for the economic crisis,” Gad said, “Egypt’s economy is shrinking because there is very little investment due to political instability and dollar crisis,” Gad affirmed.
Today, there is less of that rhetoric from the political leadership or the business community. Rather, the authorities repress labour unrest with little talk about it,which one can notice from the decreased media coverage of workers’ actions. Therefore, because the topic is much less covered, the general impression is that it doesn’t exist.
Company owners, for their part, accuse workers of being ineffective, stopping or delaying production with their strikes and sit-ins, and making companies fail.
On the other hand, the very reasons for workers going on strike or protesting are not addressed, their demands go unheard. Instead, labour actions are handled with an iron hand. In some cases, negotiations will result in meeting some of the demands. But workers rarely get what they actually ask for.