Hundreds of workers joined unemployed youth, students, and other groups opposed to President Mohamed Morsi's government and marched to commemorate May Day in Cairo Wednesday, calling for minimum-wage reform and the right to unionize.
Hundreds of workers joined unemployed youth, students, and other groups opposed to President Mohamed Morsi's government and marched to commemorate May Day in Cairo Wednesday. The crowd made their way from the Sayeda Zeinab district of the city, to the Shura Council in downtown Cairo, and ended the protest at the famed Tahrir Square. This demonstration was unlike May Day celebrations in other parts of the world. It was a protest against the current government for not achieving any of the revolution’s demands.
It’s been two and half years since the revolution (and five years since a measure to increase the minimum wage was widely adopted), and conditions for workers haven’t improved much at all. And neither is their rhetoric. Workers are still singing the same old chant, only replacing Mubarak’s name with the new Egyptian president's— Mohamed Morsi. Some of the demands signed by independent unions and various youth movements in a joint statement are familiar like a minimum wage that is tied to the rise in the cost of living, the freedom to create new unions, and renationalizing privatized factories.
Kamal Abu Eiita, a tax collector and one of the founders of Egypt’s first independent labor organization, the Real Estate Tax Collectors Independent Union spoke at the march. “We stood here years ago under Mubarak demanding minimum wage of 1200 Egyptian pounds, and now we are still demanding the same thing, not less than 1800 EGP per month (about $200) for every Egyptian worker. We know that no one will grant us our right, we will have to fight for it.” The fight for minimum wage has been widely adopted by all workers in different sectors since the slogan was first raised in 2008 by the real-estate-tax collectors. After the new constitution under President Mohamed Morsi, wage is tied to the amount of production a company produces, so it is up to each business owner to set the wage that is tied to the amount of production his or her company produces. To many workers and labor lawyers in Egypt, this arrangement simply doesn’t work. The price of basic commodities is skyrocketing, while the income of the average Egyptian hasn’t increased for years. During the march, women clanged their empty kitchen pots and held bread and chanted, “They increased sugar and oil prices, soon we will sell our furniture to be able to eat!”
According to the annual report of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), there were over 3,800 labor strikes and labor protests in 2012, most of which took place after Morsi was elected president of Egypt. This was very much reflected in today’s march since it only took few minutes for the protesters to chant against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood for being worse than Mubarak when it came to workers rights. Several protesters came with homemade signs reading “Morsi, leave now!” and yelling “Morsi Mubarak.”
Also chants against the International Monetary Fund loan and privatization were reiterated several times throughout the day. The government raised the price on fuel, electricity, and food in hopes of fulfilling the conditions of a new IMF the government is poised to take. Rejecting this loan has a direct interest to the Egyptian working class. Haitham Mohamedain, a labor lawyer and organizer with the Revolutionary Socialists argues, “Morsi is following in the same footsteps of those of Mubarak. This IMF loan will lay more workers off, and close more factories in addition to devaluing the Egyptian pound, inflation, and a spike in food prices. Workers and the poor are the ones who will suffer the most out of these failed economic policies that will not fix the Egyptian economy. These polices only serve the interest of those in power and the ruling class.”
But it’s not all terrible news for the Egyptian worker. Over 300 independent unions free of state control have been established since the revolution. Even though workers are still fighting to amend the law that makes the state recognize these independent unions as legitimate representation for workers, it is still an achievement that the workers are able to organize themselves and strike collectively. And that pool of labor activists has grown. Doctors and teachers both held national strikes this year. Workers from the metro and the railways held work stoppages on successive days too. Egypt’s labor movement is capable of organizing and winning minimal yet courageous fights, but the road is still long to achieve the kind of social justice for which the revolution started in the first place.
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