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EGYPT: Labour Strikes Point to Economic Pain

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

CAIRO, Mar 16 2009 (IPS) - Egypt has seen a wave of labour strikes in recent weeks by workers in a range of professions from lawyers to truck drivers. Although strikers' specific demands vary, commentators generally attribute the phenomenon to increasingly difficult economic circumstances.

"Recent strikes were called chiefly for economic reasons, not least of which has been the steadily increasing inflation seen in the last two years," Hamdi Abdelazim, economist and former president of the Cairo-based Sadat Academy told IPS.

In mid-February, lorry drivers declared a five-day strike over provisions in a new traffic law banning articulated trailers. Days later, more than 40,000 privately owned pharmacies also staged a strike for several days to protest a government decision to apply taxes to pharmacies retroactively.

Late February and early March saw more workers' actions. Lawyers called a strike protesting proposed legislation in parliament that called for increased court fees, while administrators employed by the ministry of education also declared a strike over unpaid bonuses. Most recently, on Mar. 5, employees at a newly privatised textile factory announced a strike after a dispute over profit-sharing. Education ministry administrators are still awaiting an official response to their demands.

The other workers' actions, however, have succeeded in prising some limited gains from the government. After intervention by President Hosni Mubrak, truck drivers were given a longer grace period to comply with required safety standards. Pharmacists received promises from the state that the offensive tax regime would be reconsidered.

Lawyers, too, received government assurances that the new draft law on court fees would be subject to re-evaluation. Textile workers have kept up their strike, although they received a degree of satisfaction after the new owner of the formerly state-owned company, citing financial losses, offered to return the firm to Egyptian public ownership.

"Every decision the Egyptian regime makes seems to meet with a workers' strike," Abdelhalim Kandil, editor-in-chief of prominent independent weekly Sout Al-Umma, wrote on Mar. 9. "The people's insistence on realising their demands is consistently forcing the government to overturn its decrees."

While specific demands may vary, local economists say the recent spate of workers' actions can be attributed to the increasingly difficult economic circumstances faced by the general public.

"All of the strikes were ultimately motivated by economic factors, chiefly the rise in inflation," said Abdelazim, pointing out that inflation rates in Egypt climbed steadily throughout 2007 and 2008 to 20 percent. "At the same time, average incomes have not kept pace, sorely reducing the average citizen's purchasing power.

"This has led to tremendous frustration over the government's inability to protect the public from runaway retail prices," Abdelazim added.

Indeed, the global economic crisis – a de facto worldwide depression – has led to a recent bout of deflation on international markets. But Abdelazim says that prices in Egypt have declined only slightly relative to global price declines.

"There has been less deflation in Egypt as a result of the economic crisis than elsewhere," he said. "This can be attributed to the existence in Egypt of numerous market monopolies on vital goods, in tandem with weak government oversight of the domestic market."

According to Abdelazim, local inflation rates have now fallen to somewhere between 14 and 18 percent. "But for the bulk of Egypt's teeming population – some 40 percent of which currently lives on the poverty line – this is still much too high," he said.

Egypt is no stranger to labour unrest. From early 2007 and throughout 2008, Egypt was gripped by a similar wave of workers' actions, the most serious of which was a series of strikes by public sector textile workers. After several months of angry strikes and demonstrations, the government finally conceded to most of the strikers' chief demands, which included salary increases and bonus payouts.

"The success of the labour actions in 2007 and 2008 encouraged workers to demonstrate and call strikes to realise longstanding demands," said Abdelazim. "Many people now see labour strikes as the only means of forcing the government to address their grievances."

Last year, public disaffection climaxed with a nationwide labour strike on Apr. 6 – involving workers of many professions in both the public and private sectors – to protest skyrocketing food prices and political stagnation. Although the number of participants was never determined, the Apr. 6 strike – organised largely through social networking website Facebook – has come to be viewed as a successful recent example of nationwide labour solidarity.

"The people have woken up twice," wrote Kandil. "Once on April 6 of last year, and now again in recent weeks, which have seen a wave of strikes that have paralysed the regime's decision-making.

"Egypt is seeing three new workers' strikes every day, and the phenomenon is set to increase further," Kandil said, warning of the dangers of widespread economic hardship and labour disaffection. "Sooner or later, this wind will turn into a storm, which will sweep away this unrighteous regime."

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