Egyptian workers on the move

Kamal Abbas (52), Director of CTUWS in Egypt, has been caught in a maelstrom. During the past year CTUWS branches were shut down by order of the Egyptian authorities , perceiving it as inciting for strikes and struggles by workers. Abbas himself, together with his colleague Mr. Mohamed Helmy, was sentenced to one year imprisonment. Only after a continuous legal battle and an international support campaign, were the authorities forced to allow its reopening and repeal the sentence against the unionists. Abbas participated in a conference of the Spanish labour union CCOO in December 2008, where Roni Ben Efrat and Assaf Adiv of WAC Maan interviewed him.

For two decades Abbas has dedicated himself to the support the awakening of workers in Egypt. He had to shorten his stay in Spain in order take part in an important assembly of Egyptian tax collectors, in which the establishment of a first-of-its-kind sectorial labour union was announced for the first time . He seemed enthusiastic to review the awakening of workers in Egypt, recounting the past 20 years when Egypt has gone through neoliberal reforms. On the workers’ part, recurrent attempts at breaking the total sway of the ruling party on social and political life, have been made. The fiercest opposition to the regime, the Muslim Brothers movement, has been acting in the background. Abbas stressed out his obligation to independence from both the ruling party and the Muslim Brothers.

Establishing CTUWS

In 1989 when Abbas was 34 years old, he has been working for 14 years at a steel factory in Helwan, the biggest industrial zone south of Cairo. “For years we have been discussing the need to establish an independent labour union to improve our meager salary. One of the things that caused a stir among workers, was a monthly pay of 3 Egyptian pounds for meals, 10 cents a day. It was so ridiculous up to the point of underestimating the workers’ dignity. Eventually when we decided to take action and strike in August 1989, the authorities’ reaction was astounding: some 10,000 policemen broke into the compound of the factory by using tear gas and clubs. Consequently, one person was killed and 15 were injured. This was the inception of CTUWS.”

Abbas was one of 300 workers arrested at that historical strike of the steel workers in Helwan. After three months in prison, a local and international solidarity campaign brought to his release, while workers from all over Egypt provided support for the strikers and their families. The Egyptian regime was under criticism of labour unions and human rights organizations around the world, and was forced to release the imprisoned workers. “I still remember our release date, 25 November 1989, as if it were yesterday. When I realized I will not be reinstated to my job at the steel factory, I along with friends, decided to materialize our dream and establish CTUWS. My partners to this initiative were mostly communist activists in groups operating underground throughout the entire time before the strike. Some of them ended up in Al-Tajamu’, a legal opposition party uniting Nasserites and the communist party in the late 70s.”

The first stage was setting up an office in Helwan, where Abbas and his associates were well linked. “Workers in that area were well acquainted with us, and we served as coordinators for information and contact with factories in the surrounding area. We also managed to recruit a group of lawyers to provide legal assistance pro bono to workers turning to CTUWS for help. In Egypt there is a tradition of lawyers devoted to supporting workers in their struggle, and whenever necessary there will always be someone to visit workers incarcerated or file lawsuits on their behalf.”

“Afterwards, we started encouraging independent candidates to run for the elections of the Federation of Labour Unions in Egypt. For years we relied on minimal budgets and volunteers solely, and only in 1995 were we able to obtain funds from a Dutch foundation supporting issues of human rights and workers, thus enabling us to open additional branches. Thanks to these funds we established branches in Cairo, Al-Mahallah al-Kubra, Hammadi, Shubra, and Ramadan City, in addition to the original branch in Helwan”.

“The Federation of Labour Unions, in total control of the ruling party, was not only against us from the beginning, but also far from taking care of workers’ needs in Egypt. In order to hold total sway on the labour union arena, its leaders have been oppressing independent candidates and forging election results. Supporters of CTUWS throughout Egypt encountered joint pressure by the Mokhabart, the Egyptian secret service, which has been arresting activists, as well as by employers threatening with dismissal and the loss of livelihood, combined with pressure by the official Federation of labour unions that demanded loyalty to the regime for promotion.”

“In 1999 CTUS won the acclaimed French Republic’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity Human Rights Prize, awarded by the French government each year, thereby affording the organization international recognition and publicity within Egypt. This support combined with bigger budgets, enabled us to publish a monthly newsletter by the name Kalam Sinai’ia, (industrial talk) which our activists have distributed by the thousands in industrial areas where CTUWS was predominant.”

“At the end of the 90s, CTUWS expanded its activity to new turf where it had no presence up to that point. We also set a tradition of celebrating May 1, International Workers Day, where thousands of activists take part in a mass event in Cairo.

It should be noted, stated Abbas, that the strikes perceived today as commonplace, express the fact that the workers of Egypt have broken the law forbidding strikes, while demonstrating their courage and power. Enacted in 2003, this law does not explicitly forbid striking, but in effect has created a situation not enabling workers obtain a strike permit. Nowadays the regime cannot enforce the implementation of this law, and has been forced to negotiate with striking workers time and time again, thus legitimatizing the violation of this draconian law. The very fact that CTUWS received an operation license, as well as additional NGO’s providing assistance to workers, such as the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, indicate a change in approach towards setting up labour unions.

The Land Tax Collectors’ Fight

One of the major battles CTUWS is involved with, is the fight of land tax Collectors. In the background of this fight is a group of workers suffering from discrimination, due to structural reforms that have taken place in Egypt since the 70s. Abbas: “In the past land tax employees were annexed to the Government Service, and as such received a relatively high salary. In 1974 the Minister of Finance decreed that this government agency be transferred to the responsibility of the various districts, and as a result their salaries and social benefits were slashed down. The Tax Collectors have demanded since then to change this decree and regain the status of Government employees, to which they were linked until that year”.

“In 2006 a stir among these workers became widespread; my announcement of support of their struggle on the popular TV show “Dream”, was a catalyst to the start of their struggle. That year they waged a strike, bringing the authorities to accept some the demands including the raising of salaries substantially; this achievement was virtually inconceivable. Civil servants in Egypt are rather conservative, and since the Sa’ad Zaghloul revolution, (the Egyptian’s fight for independence following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the beginning of the 20th century – A.A), such mass demonstrations have not been seen. In light of this fierce struggle, the Egyptian government was forced to back off, thus creating an electrifying atmosphere throughout the country.”

Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif’s term of office since July 2004, manifested by a 7% increase in the annual growth rate, saw a steep and alarming rise of the price index, whereas the level of public services curtailed down. “It was no wonder we witnessed the major strike at the Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra factory in 2006 , which ended up with success, judging by the regime’s backdown and willingness to negotiate”.

According to Abbas, the government’s willingness to negotiate with the strikers and give in to most of their demands, in order prevent the situation from becoming worse, is because it “fears the collapse of public support. A steep rise in the price index on the one hand, and run-down public services on the other, bring about a volatile state where any strike might cause civil resistance. In order to ward off such outbreaks, the government has cautiously taken measures to identify potential epicenters of resistance and neutralize them by capitulating to demands and stopping strikes challenging the regime, which also threaten by social explosion”.

Establishing Independent Labour Unions

Today, three factors allow for optimism concerning the development of worker’s struggles in Egypt, as Abbas notes:

  • 1.The changeover to independent mass media, with the establishment of new newspapers and TV stations. Independent candidates, for example, appear on national TV stations and challenge the regime openly.

  • 2.Accumulation of a critical mass of social movements creating a solid ground for action, such as Kefaya, humans rights organizations, as well as NGOs providing assistance to workers, such as CTUWS.

  • 3.The public’s willingness to break the cycle of fear and protest against the regime

Among the Egyptian people, people from all the walks of life feel that Husni Mubarak’s term of office has come to an end. After a 27-year term, there is a feeling on the Egyptian street that he and the regime he represents should step down.

The approach towards the Muslim Brothers is somewhat different, as it is the main opposition movement, successful at getting independent candidates supporting it, into the parliament and other institutions holding elections. Nonetheless, it should be emphasized that as a movement it does enjoy support by workers in Egypt, and moreover has no consistent agenda on workers-related problems and struggles.

Every year some 650,000 workers enter the Egyptian labour market, yet the government is unable to meet the demand for workplaces, thus causing an acute social crisis. The land tax collectors’ fight could pave the way for establishing of an independent labour unions.

Abbas ended our talk, saying: “For years I had two dreams: That striking will be legal for workers and that an independent labour union could be legally established. These two dreams finally come true now”.