New Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s appointment of the controversial figure Nahed al-Ashry as Minister of Manpower has caused a great deal of concern among labor activists and independent trade union organizers across the country.
Her appointment comes in light of a massive wave of strikes and other industrial actions that have rocked the country since the beginning of the year, and are believed to be the chief cause behind the resignation of Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi and his cabinet on February 24.
Sworn into office on Saturday, Ashry is only the second woman to occupy this portfolio, after Aisha Abdel Hady, who was appointed in 2005. Ashry has served as chief of the Dispute Resolution Bureau within the Ministry of Manpower under the Hosni Mubarak regime. She served in the bureau for a total of 20 years.
Many workers and labor activists claim that the 57-year-old is a Mubarak loyalist, or feloul — a remnant of the old regime. However, since her appointment Ashry has sought to distance herself from the Mubarak regime and his now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP), mentioning in news reports that she is a non-affiliated technocrat with no links to Mubarak and his party, or any other party.
Adding to the skepticism about her allegiances is the fact that she was handpicked by Mehleb — who himself was a member of the NDP’s Policies Committee under Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal Mubarak.
“We definitely didn’t chose her to serve in this capacity,” said Talal Shokr, board member of the (independent) Egyptian Democratic Labor Confederation (EDLC).
“As union representatives we were not consulted regarding Nahed al-Ashri’s appointment, nor did we have a say regarding her appointment. It was the prime minister’s choice, he appointed her to serve as a technocrat in his government. Or perhaps it’s merely an attempt to return to Mubarak’s old policies and old officials.”
“Apparently the previous minister [Kamal Abu Eita] was deemed not qualified or not experienced enough to serve as minister of manpower,” he added
“She’s the worst person who could possibly be chosen to fill the post of Minister of Manpower,” said Hisham al-Oql, a worker activist who was forced to resign from his job at the privatized Tanta Flax and Oils Company in 2010.
“There is nobody around whom there is complete approval or consensus. Yet I will strive to serve everybody who requests assistance,” Ashry said on Sunday during a televised interview on privately owned CBC Extra satellite channel.
Oql added: “Doctor Nahed has personally overseen the corrupt and unlawful privatizations of both the Tanta Flax Company and the Shebin al-Kom Textiles Company, along with several others. She also arranged the forced resignations and early retirements of hundreds of workers — in just these two companies, not to mention the other companies in which thousands of workers were sacked.”
Oql, along with dozens of workers from these two companies, has been occupying the headquarters of the (state-controlled) Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) for the past 24 days. They are demanding the re-operation of their stalled companies in light of the Administrative Court’s verdict on September 28, 2013 that these companies are to be returned to the public sector.
Neither Ashry nor the Ministry of Manpower’s spokesperson could be reached for comments about the minister’s plans to quell labor unrest or re-operate stalled companies.
In an interview with the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper on Wednesday, Ashry is quoted as saying that her experience in dispute resolution is the reason she was appointed.
She served in the Ministry of Manpower’s Dispute Resolution Bureau under Mubarak’s rule, Mohamed Morsi’s rule and that of the interim government propped up by the military.
In a number of other media reports, the newly-appointed minister also mentioned that she aspires to bring an end to labor unrest while promoting production and increasing output.
Oql dismissed these comments.
“If she is serious about her talk of production and workers’ productivity then she would be working to implement court verdicts for the re-operation of our stalled factories, and the reinstatement of us sacked workers,” he said.
“Doctor Nahed was a close associate of Aisha Abdel Hadi, who served as Minister of Manpower during some of the worst years for Egyptian workers — when tens of thousands were laid off from the public sector, and when the most basic labor rights were either ignored or openly violated,” Oql added.
However, the minister expressed a change of policies in her interview with Al-Shorouk. Ashry said she aims to provide the new minimum wage of LE 1,200 to all governmental and public sector employees in the near future, while also seeking to extend this to those employed in the private sector.
“Her success will depend on the recognition of workers’ rights and the enforcement of these rights, including not only the right to a minimum wage, but also the enforcement of a maximum wage for public sector officials, along with the right to collective bargaining and the right to establish unions independent of state control,” Shokr commented.
“We’ll give her a chance to prove herself and we hope that she will be able to uphold the international labor conventions which Egypt has ratified – so as to protect workers’ essential rights and freedoms,” he added
“Doctor Nahed is an eloquent speaker and a very convincing debater, but not much more,” said Oql. “She’ll only bring us more of the same — the same empty promises.”
According to Shokr the new minister must be prepared to engage in dialogue with striking workers and their representatives, or she will not succeed in her post.
“She must be open to societal discussions and to collective bargaining with unions. Otherwise she’ll just be carrying on with the state’s policy of ignoring labor rights and grievances — as has been the case for well over four decades.”
Ashri has announced her intention of discussing contentious labor issues with the state-controlled ETUF at the end of this month, but not with representatives of Egypt’s independent trade union movement.
Other statements recently made by Ashri, regarding Egyptian laborers abroad, have also caused concern. She raised eyebrows this week when she announced a return to Abdel Hadi’s policy of sending Egyptian women to work as maids in the Arab Gulf countries — on condition that their contracts are registered with Egyptian embassies and consulates there.
Yet the kafeel system (which means workers’ control by employment sponsors) has in the past translated into rampant labor violations against these workers, along with other Egyptian laborers, in the Gulf.
On Monday the spokesperson of the left-leaning Tagammu Party, Nabil Zakariya, called Ashry “an enemy of both Egypt’s women and its working class.”
Similar denunciations were issued from the Egyptian Communist Party and the (opposition umbrella) Kifaya Movement, among others.
In his public address to the nation on Sunday, Mehleb announced that he seeks to increase employment opportunities for the country’s labor force and “safeguard the public sector enterprises, uphold workers’ rights, and struggle to root out corruption along with those responsible for it.”
“I address you in the spirit of nationalism and love of our country, now is the time for work and production,” he said. “There must be no voice louder than that of construction and development. Thus from my heart I call on you to refrain from all protests, sit-ins and strikes. Let us commence the rebuilding of our nation.”
Mehleb failed to acknowledge that a large number of the recent strikes and other forms of labor protests have been aimed at ending corruption and mismanagement. Tens of thousands of workers have gone on strikes with the alleged objective of increasing accountability and putting a stop to corruption in the public sectors including textiles, transport, steel and iron mills and post offices.
According to Shokr, instead of focusing her efforts on attempting to end strikes, “Ashry and the new cabinet should focus on attempting to end, or at least confront corruption and mismanagement, which have been the cause of numerous strikes and industrial actions over the years.”
Mehleb continued his national address by stating that he would heed the demands and grievances of striking workers. He said workers should substitute labor protests with petitions from their representatives to the new government. He concluded by quoting a verse from the Quran regarding God’s admiration of work and productivity.