In an effort to stabilize the national economy, Egypt’s authorities have repeatedly called on the working classes to increase production, and to refrain from strikes and other forms of labor protests.
Citing massive losses of revenue amounting to tens of millions of pounds each year, the Ministry of Manpower has been calling for a one-year ban on strikes. It has moved to prohibit strikes in Alexandria, and may potentially implement similar strike bans in other governorates nationwide. Joining these calls are the prime minister, former and current presidents.
Their talk of increased production and the cessation of strikes has been parroted in the mainstream media.
However, recent policies indicate that the ruling authorities are not assisting in increasing productivity. Hundreds of factories and production lines remain idle, while daily power outages leave many companies and services without electricity — often for hours at a time.
Over the past week, authorities in several governorates — particularly Cairo, Giza, Damietta, Matrouh, Qalyubiya, Ismailia, Sohag and Assiut — have ordered security forces to clear vendors from the streets, to improve traffic flow and maintain “clean” and “civilized-looking” streets, according to officials.
Several thousands of unlicensed street vendors have had their merchandise confiscated in these security sweeps.
Despite talk of increased productivity, the state also moved to declare official holidays for both the public and private sectors on May 28, to extend voting in the presidential election for a third day, as well as for the inauguration of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on June 8.
“The double standards of the authorities are very obvious,” said independent union organizer Fatma Ramadan.
“They call on supporters of the ruling regime to rally in streets and squares across the country, while security forces block off many roads for them. Whereas, opponents of the regime are issued prison sentences for up to 15 years for participating in unauthorized rallies” — under the Protest Law issued in November.
“The authorities are calling on workers to give up their only tool of resistance, their only weapon — the right to strike — while offering practically nothing in return,” she added.
Efforts to outlaw strikes
According to figures issued by the independent Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, 87 workers were arrested and/or prosecuted in association with strikes and other labor protests between July 3, 2013 and May 15, 2014. Additionally, 41,163 individuals were arrested and prosecuted on charges relating to unauthorized protests or other illegal political actions.
While the right to strike is not banned by law, Trade Union Law 35/1976 and Unified Labor Law 12/2003 impose numerous restrictions on the ability of workers to legally exercise this right.
Since its establishment in 1957, the country’s largest labor body, the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) has authorized only two strikes.
Under the rule of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, the then-Minister of Manpower, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Khaled al-Azhari, actively advocated a one-year ban on strikes in 2013.
More recently, the acting Minister of Manpower Nahed al-Ashry has moved to enforce this one-year ban on strikes.
On May 10, Ashry presided over the signing of a “code of honor,” in which representatives of Alexandria’s chambers of commerce, state-controlled federations, and independent labor federations agreed to “halt strikes and all other formers of labor protests” until the election of a president and parliament.
According to Ramadan, “Written agreements to ban strikes won’t succeed in ending them as long as workers’ rights are violated and their freedoms are denied.” While the frequency of strikes may have temporarily decreased from earlier this year, labor problems persist unresolved, the independent union organizer adds.
Ramadan explained that the Ministry of Manpower has discussed enforcing another governorate-wide ban on strikes in the Nile Delta governorate of Gharbiya, although this has not yet materialized.
Many workers appear to be pinning their hopes on Sisi’s presidency, welcoming the state’s calls for increased productivity and the halting of labor protests. “We will halt our strikes and our demands for the minimum wage, while striving to double our production and also contributing one additional hour of work per day,” said textile worker Yasser Salama in Mahalla City, located in the Gharbiya.
In an interview with the private Al-Shorouk newspaper on Friday, this worker from the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company championed the initiative of the ETUF calling for a halt to strikes to assist the elected President and enable the new government in moving forward.
The Misr Spinning and Weaving Company is Egypt’s largest textile mill, employing some 20,000 workers. This company has been at the forefront of the country’s strikes and industrial actions since December 2006.
Other workers at this mammoth textile company are not willing to give up their right to strike, however.
Worker and activist Kamal al-Fayoumi explained that most of the strikes at this company have been targeted at “the mismanagement and corruption of company administrators,” which have allegedly cost the company hundreds of millions of pounds worth of losses since 2006.
Fayoumi claimed that the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company has been operating at around 50 percent of its productive capacity or less, while many production lines are stalling.
“We demand raw materials needed to operate our factories, and to bring this company back to its original productive capacity,” Fayoumi said.
Yet the Holding Company for Spinning and Weaving, which manages 32 public sector textile companies, and the Ministry of Investment have not yet provided the necessary amount of raw materials or investment to get these companies back to their optimum levels of productivity.
According to Tamer Fayez, another worker at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla said, “The authorities are constantly talking of increased production and productivity, yet our factories are falling into disarray.”
Fayez was dismayed by the fact that the company’s administration granted its 20,000 workers a half-day off work on May 26 and 27 for the election. Fayez was even more disturbed when Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb announced that May 27 would be an official holiday for employees of both the public and private sector.
“Mehleb visited our company on March 5, and told us not to obstruct production with our strikes, yet he is officially obstructing production for the sake of electoral and political gains. How is this acceptable?”
Mehleb also promised Mahalla’s workers that they would receive the minimum wage of LE1,200 per month. This has not yet been implemented.
Hundreds of stalled factories
According to the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services, an independent NGO, some 4,000 factories — in both the public and private sectors — have been shut down since the January 2011 uprising. State sources have denied these claims and their figures indicate that only a few hundred factories have been stalled since the January 25 Revolution.
While these figures may be disputed, there are seven companies that have been awaiting state investment in order to re-operate since September 2011.
The Administrative Court annulled the privatization contracts for the Tanta Flax and Oils Company, the Shebin al-Kom Textile Company, Nile Cotton Ginning Company, Nasr Steam Boilers Company, the Nubariya Seed Company, Omar Effendy Department Stores Company, and the Simo Paper Company.
The court found that these seven companies — privatized from the 1990s to early 2000s — were sold-off for well under their real market value. The state is supposed to re-incorporate these companies into the public sector, but has not yet done so.
Only the Omar Effendy Department Stores Company has been re-operated under the public sector, but not all of its branches are back in service. The Shebin al-Kom Textile Company has been intermittently operating at a greatly reduced rate.
According to Hisham al-Oql, a sacked worker from the Tanta Flax and Oils Company, “We’re stuck in the same old situation, with the same empty government reassurances.”
Oql explained that production at this company has been entirely halted since October 2013. There are some 480 workers — from an original workforce of around 2,300 — still receiving their basic wages from the Ministry of Investment and the Holding Company for Chemical Industries (which oversees this company) although there is no production here whatsoever.
“We don’t want handouts or assistance payments. We want our jobs back and our company back,” said Oql. “We want to get back to work, to increase production like the authorities keep telling us to do. We’ve repeatedly offered to work for a whole month without pay, until the company gets back on its feet.”
“What is keeping this company from production?” asked Oql. “The raw materials are available, the factories are available, and the workers are available. The only thing that is not available is the political will to invest and re-operate our company.”
When Tanta Flax’s workers sought to self-manage their company on March 19, local authorities and the electric company cut-off all power to it.
“We hope the government fulfils its promises … we hope for a resumption of production at our company and all other stalled companies,” Oql concluded.