Egypt’s government on collision course with labour

Egypt’s military government heads for collision with organised labour as doctors hold their fourth strike of the year, and pressure builds in the country’s textile industry.

Medical professionals in Egypt are planning an unprecedented series of strikes this month to demand authorities answer their calls for increases in spending on healthcare and a raise to the minimum wage for doctors, according to an announcement by Khairy Abdel-Dayem, head of the Doctors’ Syndicate.

On Wednesday the union held what was already its fourth strike of 2014, and second in February, when professionals across the country – excluding those working in emergency service roles – held protests at syndicate headquarters.

Doctors and nurses are claiming that the government has ignored their repeated complaints about poor working conditions, structural problems in the Egyptian healthcare service, and low pay.

The Doctors’ Syndicate saw a radical restructuring in December when an independent movement within the union won 11 of the 12 board seats, beating out Muslim Brotherhood candidates who had previously been dominant. The syndicate also elected its first female secretary-general, Mona Mina, a veteran labour campaigner and founding member of the activist group Doctors Without Rights.

But in a development this weekend Dr Mina announced that she was resigning from her post in the syndicate. “Doctors are suffering from a horrible deterioration in their status and they are hugely divided,” she said, adding that internal divisions had made her position impossible.

Dr Mina was involved in organising sit-ins and protests against the regime of the ousted president Hosni Mubarak, and helped found a group called Tahrir Doctors during the January 25 2011 uprising which provided medical assistance to demonstrators injured in the protests. Tahrir Doctors went on to support those injured in subsequent protests against the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces under Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, and against Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist government.

In an announcement to press in January, Dr Mina claimed the government’s attitude to healthcare, and budgetary commitments to its improvement were unacceptable. “Egypt’s health expenditure is below that of poor countries, not just that of developed economies,” she said.

According to World Bank data Egypt’s healthcare spending is equivalent to around 4.9 percent of GDP, lower than the 8.4 percent of Sudan, 6.2 percent of Tunisia, or 6 percent of Morocco, but higher than in Algeria or Libya, which spend just 3.9 and 4.4 percent of GDP respectively.

Under Dr Mina, the syndicate was locked in disputes with the Ministry of Health and its head Dr Maha el-Rabat. Dr Rabat’s reputation among labour campaigners has never been good due to her involvement in a series of hospital privatisations (in collaboration with USAID) during the Mubarak regime.

The Health Ministry claims the government is taking the strikes seriously. On Thursday interim president Adly Mansour announced a decree that offered doctors bonus pay, although did not increase the base salary. The government also offered to marginally raise hazardous pay.

“We take the strikes very seriously and respect the constitutional right to strike, but we believe this bill is a step in the right direction for the negotiations given what the budget can currently withstand,” Dr Ahmed Kamel, an official in the Health Ministry, tells This is Africa.

The union has said it will continue to strike twice a week until its next major meeting on February 21.

On Saturday hundreds of junior ranked police officers also went on strike in seven different governorates to protest against bad pay and poor working conditions. Leaders claimed they would expand their demands to include the resignation of the Interior Minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, if their complaints are not addressed.

A legacy of revolution

Egypt’s professional classes have played an important role in recent uprisings. “The professional syndicates played a key role in the removal of Mubarak in early 2011, and remain a potent force within Egyptian politics,” says Citigroup’s chief economist for the Middle East, Farouk Soussa.

Mr Soussa believes that the greater political engagement of the middle classes resulting from the uprising against former-president Mubarak will now be a long-term trend.

“So far, professional unions have restricted their activities to the pursuit of the interests of their members, but their actions are still disruptive to economic activity, and reflect a legacy of the 2011 revolution that is unlikely to recede anytime soon,” he says.

The revolutionary April 6 movement, which was central in organising against Mr Mubarak during the 2011 uprising, originally arose from strikes in Egypt’s textile producing region, Mahalla, in 2008. The leadership of the April 6 movement has been imprisoned since the July military coup.

Over the past few months press in the textile industry has been building again. In July, more than 20,000 workers in the Mahalla state spinning and weaving company went on strike, claiming to have received just half of the bonuses previously promised to them by the state.

Plant managers attempted to placate the strike by promising to make up the difference the following month, but payments didn’t come through, and in August tens of thousands of workers again went on strike to demand the promised funds, reportedly equivalent to over a month’s salary.

Disputes have continued and in October Mahalla workers staged a major strike, this time storming the office of the company’s CEO, Fouad Abdel-Alim. For three days the plant was shut down by the sit-ins until the company agreed to pay another tranche of missing payments.

Bread, freedom, and social justice

Officials are aware that many of their planned policies put them in conflict with the interests of Egypt’s lower-paid workers, who are demanding social reform, and they have made some attempts to mitigate popular dissatisfaction.

In December of last year the government announced plans to introduce a minimum wage for public sector workers of 1,200 Egyptians pounds or just over $170 per month. The increase would have a practical effect, given roughly a quarter of the country’s population currently live below the poverty line, but only applies to around five million workers. The cost of the plans has been estimated at $2.6bn per year.

Average salaries are in fact higher in the public sector than the private, where no minimum wage regulations are planned. The overwhelming majority of spending outlined in two separate $4.3bn fiscal stimulus packages has still been targeted at the business community and not workers.

A World Bank official in Cairo tells This is Africa that it has launched a $200m intensive labour

programme in Egypt aimed at getting unemployed, unskilled workers into short-term employment in public works projects. The programme gives unemployed labourers jobs cleaning canals, repairing houses and roads, and working in community service roles.

“The current strike reflects the deeper structural challenges that the Egyptian state has been facing for over two decades: an inability to meet its responsibility to protect the social and economic rights of a variety of important social groups that the state had traditionally protected,” according to Hesham Sallam, a fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.

Mr Sallam argues that this trend is a reminder that the structural problems and widespread societal grievances that contributed to Mr Mubarak’s downfall are still prevalent.

“That three years have passed since Mubarak’s downfall and demands for more humane wages and working conditions have persisted reflects the harsh reality that the quest for ‘bread, freedom, and social justice’ is still ongoing,” he says.

This article was originally published with Financial Times: This is Africa on February 10th 2014.

About Tom Stevenson
Tom Stevenson is an Independent North Africa reporter

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