Thousands of public sector workers took to the streets on Monday in protest against the civil service law issued in March, which they say negatively impacts up to 7 million individuals by decreasing their income, increasing the managerial powers of administrators and introducing a host of vaguely worded regulations that could infringe on basic workers’ rights.
Starting at noon, over 2,000 people — the vast majority of whom are tax authority employees — gathered at the Journalists Syndicate in downtown Cairo to protest the law. The demonstration was originally scheduled to take place in front of the Cabinet, but the police refused to grant permission for that location.
Although some sources called it one of the largest street protests since 2013, the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram reported that only “dozens” showed up for the demonstration — though photos suggest a much higher number.
Despite the stifling August heat, throngs of angry protesters used words like “illegitimate” and “depart” as they loudly chanted against the law. Some of the tax collectors carried banners respectfully calling on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to amend the law. Others carried banners denouncing the presidential decree, calling it the “Forced Labor Law.”
Alongside the tax authority workers’ protest, hundreds of Public Transport Authority employees announced partial strikes and slow-downs on Monday at three bus stations around Cairo, including the Badr, Nasr and Gesr al-Suez stations.
These industrial actions were largely organized by independent labor unions. Members of independent unions of tax collectors, customs employees, bus drivers and Antiquity Ministry workers, among other groups, joined demonstrations and strike actions alongside representatives from syndicates for doctors, teachers, engineers and veterinarians.
The state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), however, did not take part.
“While it has raised some objections with the authorities regarding certain provisions of the new civil service law, the ETUF has not sided with us in this struggle,” Sales Tax Authority employee Sameh Mahmoud told Mada Masr. “The ETUF is largely committed to promoting the administration’s policies, yet is entirely disconnected from our own demands and rights.”
“We will continue to escalate our protests if our demands are not met in terms of amending this poorly formulated and unjust law,” Mahmoud declared. He said he would join his colleagues in Cairo to gather at the Journalists Syndicate once again on August 17, as part of a protest organized by Real Estate Tax Authority employees.
“If the authorities disregard our demands, or take punitive measures against us for protesting — as they have threatened to do — then we will surely escalate our actions even further by launching a strike on August 30. This work-stoppage is already being planned,” Mahmoud warned.
At the Journalists Syndicate, Rabeah Mohamed, a General Tax Authority employee from Monufiya, told Mada that “our chief grievances are that this law is being used to limit our bonuses and diminish income. Our income used to increase month by month, year by year. Now our salaries are stagnating, and our families will be the ones most directly impacted by this law.”
Mohamed, along with five of his coworkers from Monufiya, claimed their July and August salaries stayed flat due to the newly imposed caps on workers’ bonuses.
“We didn’t expect that this law would diminish our income, but when we did realize this bitter truth last month, we just couldn’t remain silent. We cannot let the government erode our rights,” Mohamed asserted.
“We have other objections, including the sweeping powers granted to administrators,” he continued. “Our administrators and managers are now empowered to determine the extent of each employee’s pay raises or pay cuts, promotions or dismissals. These wide-ranging powers allow those in managerial positions to appoint employees of their choice, such as from among their family members and friends, and to fire anybody who disagrees with them.”
However, while speaking at a press conference on Monday, Planning Minister Ashraf al-Araby dismissed claims of favoritism, preferential treatment or nepotism associated with the civil service law. The minister claimed that the legislation was “part of the general administrative reform plan agreed upon by the government.”
Seeking to allay the workers’ concerns, Araby added that the provisions of “this law would not be enforced upon public school teachers, doctors at public hospitals or employees of the Public Transport Authority.”
And, Araby promised, in the near future further executive decrees regulating the provisions of the law would be open to public discussion and the participation of civil society groups.
But Ikram Mustafa, an employee of the General Tax Authority in Alexandria, didn’t buy Araby’s explanation.
“If there was a public budget crisis affecting the state, then we would happily sacrifice some of our wages for the good of the nation,” Mustafa argued. “However, what we are faced with is decreased income for us employees, and greater income for those in managerial positions.”
Furthermore, warned Tarek Murad of the Sales Tax Authority in Alexandria, “tax collectors are much like judges. If they receive insufficient salaries, then they grow prone to accepting bribes and corruption.”
But “the biggest difference between us tax collectors and the judges is that judges get paid above the maximum wage [LE42,000 per month], whereas the starting salaries for us tax collectors are just above the minimum wage [LE 1,200 per month],” Murad clarified.
In March, the State Council Court issued a ruling exempting judges and prosecutors from the national maximum wage. Murad claimed that the average income for sales tax collectors, on the other hand, is between LE2,000 to LE3,000 per month.
“If laws like the civil service law are to be applied, then they should be applied to all civil servants and public sector workers. However, this is not the case,” he concluded.
Sisi also issued another presidential decree on May 7 that exempted the presidency and the Cabinet from two articles in the law which stipulate that state officials must publicly announce all the candidates applying for high-ranking governmental posts and contracts.
Many workers attending Monday’s protest at the Journalists Syndicate agreed that neither Sisi nor his administration adequately consulted with labor unions or professional syndicates prior to issuing the legislation.
“We were all surprised by the issuing of such a detailed and comprehensive law,” said Mahmoud. At 72 articles long, this piece of legislation is more of a comprehensive booklet than the average presidential decree.
And “we were even more surprised that trade unions were kept out of this law’s drafting process,” Mahmoud continued. “We hope that President Sisi will rescind this law. We also hope that an elected parliament can discuss and draft new proposals for a more just civil service law inclusively with workers, employees and unions across Egypt.”