English transcript of talk by Fatma Ramadan, Executive Committee member of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, to the February 8, 2014 Egypt forum sponsored by the MENA Solidarity Network-US
Good afternoon! Comrades at the MENA Solidarity Network in New York, I would like to thank you for inviting me to deliver this talk via Skype, and more importantly for your solidarity with the Arab revolutions. I would like to talk to you on the situation of the labor movement within the overall context of the Egyptian revolution, specifically in the post-June 30, 2013 period.
The labor movement is not separate from the Egyptian revolution. When the latter is facing, as it is now, a critical juncture with the counter-revolution gaining momentum and a capacity to mobilize people on the ground in an hysterical attack on the revolution, it is only normal to find a reflection of this on the labor movement.
In fact, the June 30 coup, or more accurately the July 3 coup, has negatively affected the labor movement. Under the slogan of “no voice shall rise higher than that of the battle” and in the context of the “war on terrorism”, popular and social demands are not tolerated.
While no accurate statistics are available, it is clear that the scale of social protests has significantly fallen after June 30. Workers for whom grievances are not a “life and death matter”, are inclined to postpone expressing them, hoping that things will be better once stability has been restored, as they are repeatedly told. There are, however, workers for who patience is a luxury they can’t afford: especially those losing their jobs, and those who are not getting their salaries for months (sometimes for a year or two) such as in Samanud or Beheira and other places.
Such workers are waging defensive battles. They are reacting to attacks by employers. They try to maintain gains they realized through their struggles of past years. So the strikes and sit-ins we witness after June 30 are mainly aimed at restoring past rights or gains. This includes disputes over workers’ shares in profits, such as at the Iron and Steel Company in Helwan where a relatively successful strike took place recently. Employers, including many making big profits, are attempting to roll back workers’ gains. They feel emboldened by the new political climate and hence their attacks on workers. They explicitly tell workers: “This is our era”.
In fact, the post June 30 era appears like a period of “settling accounts” with the labor movement in general. We have, for instance, seen cases were workers’ are being punished for a strike they launched several months earlier! At the sugar mill owned by Naguib Saweiris, workers have been dismissed in August for instigating for a strike that took place back in April. This is not a unique case, but has rather been repeated in many workplaces.
We also witness a clear change in the behavior of the government after June 30. While claiming to be the “government of the revolution”, it never sides with workers in their disputes with employers, even when the demands in question are absolutely legal ones. The government has unleashed employers on the workers. It declines to play its normal and legal role. A case in point is the Ministry of Labor and Manpower.
The government, in fact, is not only abstaining from its legal duty towards workers, it is also putting forward policies hostile to the interests of workers and their movement. Take for instance the new minimum wage legislation, hailed as a victory for the revolution and for the cause of social justice. At closer scrutiny, it appears that this is a big lie. First, it applies only to public sector employees, according to the government itself. Given several restrictions and exceptions, it appears that only 2 million out of 6 million public sector employees will benefit from it.
As to the private sector, employing more than two-thirds of Egypt’s 26 million workers, there is no obligation on employers to respect the minimum wage. Employers are demanding many government concessions (further attacks on workers’ rights) in order for them to respect the minimum wage, including reducing employers’ shares in workers’ social security and changing the labor law in a way that eases dismissals further.
It is particularly unfortunate that the current Labor Minister Kamal Abu Eita, former head of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) is currently putting forward a new draft law that is significantly worse than existing legislation!
Meanwhile, the government is abstaining from enacting the Trade Unions Freedoms Law. Instead, it is maintaining the anti-strike law enacted by SCAF in March 2011, and further restricting the right to protest through the recent anti-demonstration legislation.
Workers are being dismissed more frequently than before. Other forms of oppression are on the rise. Suez steel workers, whose strike had started prior to June 30, have been attacked by military forces. Oil workers striking in Alexandria have seen their employer bringing in a private security agency to crush their struggle using police dogs. Despite workers’ appeals, the government has not interfered.
We also witness a general reluctance to grant workers’ demands. Thus strikes tend to be longer in duration and more bitter. In the above-mentioned oil workers’ strike in Alexandria, workers were demanding their legally established share in profits, to no avail.
As to the recently enacted Constitution, despite the propaganda surrounding it. From the standpoint of workers it is even worse than the Morsi Constitution. The latter had stipulations regarding workers’ representation in the two chambers of Parliament; it stipulated an Economic and Social Council, as a general forum for negotiations between workers and employers. Both stipulations have now been abolished.
This did not prevent Abu Eita from instigating workers to vote “yes”, using all the means of the state machine for that purpose. Once again, the rationale was that “no voice shall rise higher than that of the battle” and that we are in the midst of a “war on terrorism” in which dissent is forbidden. Let’s first restore stability, the argument goes, and then we will see.
Independent trade unions, one of the most important fruits of the Egyptian revolution, are being marginalized. There are attempts at distorting them, manipulating them, making them a new version of the same old pro-government and bureaucratized federation. Trade union plurality is being emptied from any real content.
In a recent labor protest in Port Said championed by an independent union, employers expressly told their workers: “we are willing to negotiate with you and listen to your demands, provided you dismiss the independent union and stop referring to it”. Employers are aware that independent unions have already, through their militancy, established roots among workers. They are doing their best to marginalize them.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the Egyptian revolution in general is facing a critical conjuncture. No wonder that workers and their movement, specifically the independent trade unions, are facing difficult times.
To be or not to be is a question facing the Egyptian revolution and the labor movement today. All scenarios remain open.
One possibility is defeat, though this won’t be a lasting one. This can take the form of further divisions and cooptation of unions by the regime and the employers. Another possibility, much more positive, is for workers, who today have a valuable experience of struggle, to rebuild their unions and federations anew, so that they become more representative of their grievances. There are attempts at several workplaces to gather, hold general assemblies, learn from past battles and experiences. Success is not guaranteed, but the battle is goes on.
At EFITU, while the militant tendency calling for unions to struggle from below for workers interests and to link those interests to those of the wider revolutionary struggle, has always been a minority, it had managed at the high points of the revolutionary struggle, to impose its voice. Today this is not the case. A similar situation is faced by other organizational structures of the labor movement. It is clear that there are significant structural problems in all attempts at independent and militant unionism in Egypt today. The experience of past battles, though, offer an opportunity to distil experiences and sort out those currents genuinely expressing workers’ grievances and interests.
Despite all difficulties, the way forward is a real possibility. It requires hard work and continuous effort. It also needs solidarity and the exchange of experiences.
We are at a stage in which independent federations, such as my own EFITU, are taking negative and reactionary stands towards their members. Attempts at criticizing the government or expressing solidarity with struggling workers are being silenced within the executive office fo EFITU.
One reason for optimism, is that the mood is very different at the grass-root level. There is currently a rising wave of protests on the question of the minimum wage. The movement is particularly strong among government employees who are discovering the deception of government propaganda. There are signs that the private sector will follow suit. The movement will continue. But the violent pressures on it will also continue.
In the last analysis, the fate of the labor movement is intimately linked to that of the revolutionary struggle as a whole. The stronger the wider movement, the more workers are encouraged to raise their grievances and express them in more radical struggles and demands. At the same time, the healthier and stronger the workers’ movement, the more the wider struggle will be able to carry on and deepen itself.
I hope we will manage to resist during this critical conjuncture. We are facing today accusations of treason as we try to continue our struggle for democracy and social justice. But those who are today under the influence of the pro-Sisi propaganda and the calls for stability and for the “production wheel” to turn will sooner and latter discover the amount of manipulation they are exposed to. They will discover that the current regime is biased against the masses, and expresses the interests of the rich and powerful in society.
The struggle continues! Thank you!
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