[lbo-talk] EGYPT: Labour Unrest Spreads

Yoshie Furuhashi critical.montages at gmail.com
Tue May 15 07:20:59 PDT 2007

On 5/15/07, Steven L. Robinson <srobin21 at comcast.net> wrote:
> Pakistani cities virtually shut down by strike
> Reuters
> Mon May 14, 2007 10:06PM EDT
> Karachi - A Pakistani opposition strike virtually shut down Karachi and
> other major cities on Monday after nearly 40 people were killed and about
> 150 wounded in Pakistan's worst political street violence in two decades.
> Authorities banned demonstrations in Karachi and declared a public holiday
> across Sindh province after the weekend violence in the city, which began
> when Pakistan's suspended top judge tried to meet supporters.
> The government has authorized paramilitary troops to shoot anyone involved
> in serious violence in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, which has a history
> of bloody feuding between ethnic-based factions.
> City police chief Azhar Farooqi said security forces had stepped up patrols
> and the situation was under control. There was no violence on Monday though
> the city was tense.
> "The city is totally paralyzed. Shops are closed and very little public
> transport is on the roads. People are scared," Farooqi told Reuters.
> Government attempts to remove Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry over
> unspecified accusations of misconduct leveled on March 9 have outraged the
> judiciary and the opposition.
> The judicial crisis has snowballed into a campaign against President Pervez
> Musharraf and is the most serious challenge to the authority of the
> president, who is also army chief, since he seized power in 1999.
> The opposition strike, called to protest against the violence, saw shops and
> markets closed in all major cities including Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar,
> Rawalpindi and Quetta.
> 8_TOPSTORY_strike_shuts_down_pakistani_cities

The empire may soon lose both Egypt and Pakistan.

<http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=37717> EGYPT: Labour Unrest Spreads Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, May 14 (IPS) - Workers in Cairo's vital public transport sector threatened to go on strike earlier this month if the state did not meet their list of demands. The incident was only the latest in a spate of strikes and protests in recent months that local commentators attribute to the steadily rising cost of living.

"These workers' actions are a result of the crushing economic situation," Magdi Hussein, secretary-general of the Labour Party, officially frozen by the government since 2000, told IPS. "But with the current political upheaval in Egypt, workers have begun breaking down the wall of fear by wielding the weapons of the strike and the sit-in."

On May 1, some 3,000 employees of the state-run Transportation Authority, including drivers, ticket collectors and maintenance workers, threatened a general strike, demanding better pay and benefits. In a show of force, workers briefly prevented buses from departing from a major depot in the capital's Nasr City district.

After calling for a sit-in strike until their demands were met, transport workers were joined on the following day by an estimated 1,000 employees of Cairo's state-run Metro Authority, who produced a similar list of demands.

Two days of subsequent negotiations resulted in a promise from the transportation ministry that workers' complaints would be looked into. The ministry further vowed to issue a decision on the matter later this month.

"We held the sit-in because we demand our basic rights, which are stipulated by law," a leader of the Metro workers' labour action told IPS. "But if we aren't granted our basic rights, we'll call for a major sit-in strike in earnest."

According to Ali Hashem, editor-in-chief at the government-run Dar al-Tahrir print house and a specialist on transport issues, the ministry will most likely meet most, if not all, of the workers' demands.

"The ministry is committed to improving public transport services," he told IPS. "But this can't be done without improving the situation of the workers in the sector."

Egypt has seen an unprecedented number of organised labour actions in the last six months. Since the beginning of this year, more than 50 strikes and labour protests have been called, with 11 in the last week of April alone.

Labour actions have been organised in several of Egypt's most important industries, in both the public and private sectors. In addition to pubic transport, these have included the textiles, construction and industrial manufacturing sectors.

The biggest labour action was in December, when some 25,000 workers participated in a strike at the state-owned Egypt Company for Spinning and Weaving in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla. After three days of striking, which reportedly cost the company some 12 million dollars, workers' demands for promised bonuses were finally met.

Saad al-Husseini, MP from Mahalla and secretary-general of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in parliament, described the strike as "the spark that inspired other oppressed workers in Egypt to press for their rights."

He went on to cite the main reasons for the success of the Mahalla action. "Workers held a peaceful strike and didn't threaten any of the company's assets, they didn't insult the government and they didn't get sidetracked by other political issues," al-Husseini told IPS.

Notably, the recent labour unrest has been marked by the absence of official union representation, with most actions being independently organised by workers themselves. The reason for this, say labour organisers and commentators, is that the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) -- the only legal union representation available -- has largely failed to protect workers' rights.

They claim that the ETUF lacks genuine independence and ultimately answers to the ruling National Democratic Party of President Hosni Mubarak. In many cases, along with better pay and benefits, strike organisers have also demanded the removal of their official union representatives.

"Our union has always sided with the state rather than siding with us," said the organiser of the metro sit-in, who did not wish to be named.

Hashem agreed, saying that official unions had "completely failed" to protect workers' interests. "In fact, they have traditionally stood on the side of the government against the workers," he added.

According to Hussein, the ETUF has always been stocked with government loyalists who take their directions from the ruling party rather than from the workers they claim to represent.

"If workers have no bona fide union representation to speak for them," he said, "the decision to strike comes easily."

Spokesmen for the government, meanwhile, have suggested that clandestine communist groups or unlicensed workers' associations have had a hand in organising the recent wave of strikes. Late last month, authorities shut down the Cairo-based Centre for Trade Union & Worker's Services, an independent organisation devoted to labour rights issues, triggering a storm of condemnation from human and civil rights groups.

But far from being the result of a political conspiracy, most informed observers say the current labour unrest lacks any political dimension. They attribute the phenomenon to the rising cost of living, noting that inflation has continued to rise steadily ever since a major currency devaluation in 2003.

"Salaries haven't risen in tandem with inflation," said the Labour Party's Hussein. "And life has become untenable for most of the Egyptian people."

In reference to the Mahalla textiles strike in particular, al-Husseini said, "How could people be expected to work for 25 years with the same low salaries of about 100 dollars a month?"

Conversations with transport workers in the capital, whose monthly wages range roughly from 30 dollars to 150 dollars, seem to bear this out.

"I can barely afford to feed my family," one Metro Authority employee and participant in the recent sit-in told IPS. "My monthly salary, which comes to about 80 dollars, doesn't last ten days," added the father of three.

The labour unrest has been accompanied by numerous allegations of state intimidation against strike organisers. But there have been relatively few instances of overt violence by state security services of the kind seen in past workers strikes or in recent political demonstrations.

"Security forces can't use violence against strikers like they did in the 1980s and 1990s," said Hussein. "Because they, better than most, realise how widespread the resentment is."

He added: "They know that if they resort to violence against workers, it could trigger a political upheaval on the scale of the 1977 bread riots."

Some security officers themselves quietly express reservations about the potential use of force against strikers.

"It's not our job to persecute workers," said one security officer on condition of anonymity. "We actually sympathise with them in their struggle for their legal rights." (END/2007) -- Yoshie

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