Over the past three years parades and street rallies for Labor Day have not been permitted in Egypt, and this year too the events have been subdued and held indoors.
An official state celebration was held on April 28 in eastern Cairo, at the Armed Forces’ luxury Al-Masah Hotel, and a smaller commemoration by independent labor organizations is scheduled for the evening of May 1 at the Journalists’ Syndicate in downtown Cairo.
At Al-Masah Hotel, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi delivered his first televised Labor Day speech to the nation, surrounded by ministers, top generals and leading members of the state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF.)
Last year, Sisi broke with a decades-long presidential tradition of addressing the nation on Labor Day. He commemorated Labor Day at the Police Academy in New Cairo with a select group of workers in lieu of a televised address.
This year, Labor Day comes amid a backdrop of new austerity measures, increased costs of living, faltering industries, a devastated tourism sector, unemployment growing to (officially) nearly 13 percent, and increasing countrywide labor unrest with hundreds of industrial protests and strikes.
Many independent unionists and workers’ rights activists have expressed pessimism regarding the future of Egypt’s labor movement, but Sisi sounded optimistic about how labor relations will develop during his rule.
Delivered from a stage covered with the ETUF logo, Sisi’s scripted speech praised Egypt’s workforce of over 28.4 million with patriotic rhetoric and called on workers to “double your efforts.”
“Increased production means increased incomes,” he said.
Like former President Hosni Mubarak in his Labor Day speeches, Sisi emphasized the state’s concern for low-income earners. He did not discuss the austerity measures introduced in 2014, which are said to have impacted millions of low-income families.
“I kindly ask him to actually visit factories and other workplaces, in order to come into contact with real workers and hear their grievances,” Kamal al-Fayoumi, a worker leader from the public-sector Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla, tells Mada Masr of Sisi’s speech. “Otherwise he just hears the applause and empty talk of ETUF representatives, which does not reflect the reality of our situation.”
Fayoumi spells out his Labor Day aspirations and concerns: “We want wages to increase in line with prices. Our utility bills are increasing exponentially, prices of basic consumer goods are sky-rocketing, while wages stagnate. Real wages are declining, and this will likely contribute to more labor unrest across Egypt.”
Not all workers in public-sector enterprises, let alone private sector workers, are elegible for so-called monthly minimum wage of LE1200 (currently equivalent to $US135), which was introduced in 2014.
Sisi’s speech warned against labor protests, stressing “the importance of promoting dialogue and collective bargaining between both sides of the productive process, to realize amicable resolutions, and to decrease labor protests, which negatively affect production.”
“Who’s going to represent me in this collective bargaining?” asks Seoud Omar, a Suez Canal Authority employee and labor organizer in Suez City. “How are workers supposed to confront exploitation, corruption, mismanagement and poor working conditions when ETUF has failed to over several decades?”
Omar says the ETUF has a membership of nearly 4 million — less than 15 percent of the national workforce — and thus is only capable of bargaining on behalf of a minority of workers. Egypt’s independent trade unions claim a membership of only a few hundred thousand, and have even weaker bargaining powers.
“The ETUF leadership seeks to outlaw independent unions under the pretext that they instigate labor protests and strikes,” points out Omar.
In 2015, 1,117 strikes and other industrial actions were reported across Egypt, according to Egyptian NGO Democracy Meter — an average of three labor protests for each day of the year. As for 2016, it says that, “Between January and April of this year there have been a total of 493 labor protests (including strikes, marches, rallies, occupations, etc.). This currently represents an average of six industrial actions each day, and a 25 percent increase in such labor unrest in comparison to the same period last year.”
Most of these actions (144) took place in Greater Cairo, followed by the Nile Delta governorates (110), the Suez Canal governorates (63) and Alexandria (60.) Upper Egypt and other governorates witnessed the rest.
These industrial actions affect both unionized and non-unionized workplaces, and include independent unionists and ETUF members alike – although ETUF has officially authorized only two strikes since its establishment in 1957.
“ETUF ignores the national Constitution of 2014 regarding the right to strike (Article 15) and freely establish unions (Article 76),” Omar says, “Just as they ignore international workers’ rights conventions that Egypt ratified decades ago, including the International Labor Organization’s conventions.”
A recently issued ILO statement expressed “concern over threats to human and trade union rights in Egypt” under Sisi. It also cited “the responsibility of the government to ensure the application of international labor conventions on freedom of association that it has freely ratified.”
According to domestic trade union legislation, ETUF has been Egypt’s only legally-recognized labor federation since its establishment nearly 60 years ago. It maintained its monopoly until the 2011 uprising against Mubarak, when independent trade union federations emerged to challenge it.
In his Labor Day address, Sisi said the new parliament “will formulate the legislation needed to create an encouraging atmosphere for the process of production, by discussing and issuing the relevant laws, at the forefront of which are the (new) Labor Law and Trade Union Law.”
In an interview posted on ETUF’s website on April 28, newly-appointed Manpower Minister Mohamed Saafan — a leading ETUF member — says his ministry “is adding its finishing touches to the draft laws on labor and trade unions.”
The ministry’s draft laws are to be sent to parliament for review, specifically to the parliamentary Manpower Committee, which is presided over by ETUF chief Gebali al-Maraghi and other members of the state-run federation.
Building on the April ILO statement on Egypt, on April 30 Human Rights Watch called on Egypt to “unshackle workers’ right to organize,” saying the draft Trade Union Law being prepared should guarantee unions’ independence.
In an interview with the state-owned Al-Akhbar newspaper on May 1, Saafan argues that “there is no such thing as independent unions, only parallel organizations. Each one of these organizations has specific objectives, and the last of their concerns are labor rights.”
“Little by little the truth behind this regime’s policies are being exposed,” says Omar, “and workers are realizing that the government and ETUF have no real intention of negotiating with other labor groupings — be they independent unions, federations or independent-minded workers. The regime wants to listen only to its yes-men. It is siding with its own interests and protecting its own privileges.”
As for the May 1 event scheduled to take place at the Journalists’ Syndicate, dubbed “United for Union Freedoms,” it aims to address the grievances of independent unions and discuss their proposed amendments to the extant trade union and labor laws.
“These new laws are unlikely to add any provisions protecting labor rights or freedoms,” says Talal Shokr, an organizer of this event and member of the Independent Pensioners’ Union. “They are likely to maintain the status quo of unbalanced labor relations which existed under Mubarak. Perhaps they will serve to tilt them even further in favor of investors’ interests.”
Concluding his Labor Day speech, Sisi announced he is pledging LE100 million from the publicly-financed Tahya Masr (Long Live Egypt) fund to the Ministry of Manpower’s emergency funds for stalled and faltering industries — particularly the tourism industry. Tourism has been badly affected since the fatal downing of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai in late October, in what is widely believed to be a terrorist act.