People in Egypt are used to not having it easy. The Egyptian workforce has been mostly satisfied with conditions at their governmental offices or public sector work, but the last few months have increasingly seen sit-ins and demonstrations by workers and employees. At the Ministry of Religious Endowments employees protested against a blockade of their incentives, and employees of the real estate tax offices protested against their low salaries.
The protesters also included teachers from Al-Azhar, factory workers, transport workers—who succeeded through protests last May in raising their commission for booking tickets, postal workers, staff at the Bibliotheca Alexadrina, Mansoura University staff, money-changers and train drivers. To say nothing of the months-long demonstrations and sit-ins staged by the workers at Mehalla Spinning and Weaving Co, one of the largest textile producers in Egypt.
Some six million people—out of a total 22 million who constitute Egypt’s workforce, according to the latest statistics by the Central Apparatus for Mobilisation and Statistics—are on the government’s payroll. The large number of civil servants who took part in the protests, and who are prohibited by law from going on strike, is clear evidence of the failure of the law.
The protests revealed the anger of the protesters at the increasingly wide gap between the rich and poor.
Economist Ali al-Qurei, who sits on the board of the Egyptian Businessmen’s Association, says the protests are spreading like a virus through every public sector and that the government’s response has a negative side. Raising salaries haphazardly, Dr al-Qurei says, would lead to rapid inflation. He explained that the alternative would be a studied rise in salaries, and this could be realised through dialogue between management and workers’ syndicates.
Dr Qurei questioned whether there was any coordination between responsible organisations and the authorities to regulate protests and sit-ins—which are a worker’s original right—without a damaging result on the economy.
Eissa Fathi, of the Egyptian Capital Market Association (ECMA) said that the protests result in a halting production and consequently, in increased expenses and overheads. They have a detrimental impact on a company’s share price, and project a negative image of the management, which appears incapable of effectively running the company. Mr Fathi said protests strongly affect the national economy since production lines are interrupted, resulting in reduced products and services on the market and a consequent rise in prices. According to Mr Fathi, no one can as yet estimate the losses from the recent employee protests. And unlike foreign companies, Mr Fathi remarked, most local companies—whether public or private—are not insured against losses incurred due to work stoppages.
Not the same
Economic researcher Hatem Abdel-Gawad told Watani it was very important to reach a balance between the rights of employees and those of employers. Mr Abdel-Gawad encouraged the role of workers unions in negotiations with the government and with the private sector company management, pointing out that even if protest is in itself legal it should not be used to achieve illegal or unjust demands. Mr Abdel-Gawad further said that employees should realise that salaries differ from one industry to another, especially where—as in the communications, steel or cement industries—the worker offers added value to the product, which procures higher profits for the company. It is thus unreasonable, he said, to suggest that incentives should be distributed equally to all workers, in profitable and non-profitable companies alike. Mr Abdel-Gawad rejects the demand to increase salaries or pay because salaries are too low to secure a decent standard of living or to keep up with rising prices. Pay is after all calculated to compensate for work and production, not to cover a person’s upkeep or expenses—given that the two are intricately connected of course. Certain industries require specific skills and education—the acquirement thereof involves investment in time, effort and expenses—and thus warrant higher wages. Work which requires unskilled labour naturally pays less. In such a case, equality in incentives will mean losses for the company.
Listen to them
On the other hand, Mahmoud Kamal, a worker’s leader in a textile factory told Watani that the protests revealed the employees’ loss of confidence in management, worker unions and syndicate committees. At the time of the protests, he said, the only concern of all these bodies was to end the protests before even listening to the workers or hearing them out, whereas the workers’ demands were all legitimate. Merely improving the medical services offered to the workers and providing them with appropriate transportation means to their work places, Mr Kamal said, would have made a big difference in improving their cruel living conditions. His opinion is that workers are not responsible for the deteriorating state of the [public sector] factories they work at or their losses due to years of absent maintenance and poor government policies. He remarked that the incident which enraged the workers most was that, while they were denied incentives on grounds that the company was non-profitable, the management and members of the syndicate committee were granted generous bonuses.