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Calls for better pay in Egypt getting louder

Protesters square up to riot police in Cairo (2 May 2010)
Egypt has strong laws that ban demonstrations by opposition movements, but labour protests have become more and more common

By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Cairo

There was the usual din as cars stuck in the rush-hour traffic honked their horns but the shouts of several hundred demonstrators in downtown Cairo were louder.

"Our demand is the lowest demand," they shouted, shaking their fists beneath the windows of cabinet ministers' offices, "we need wages that are enough for a month."

A day after international labour day, members of trade unions, public workers and opposition groups gathered to call for an increase in the national minimum wage, set at 35 Egyptian pounds ($6) a month since 1984. They said it should rise to 1,200 pounds ($215).

Now my family can only afford meat once every four weeks, I've almost forgotten how to cook it
Safaa al-Lutfi
government worker

"I swear my salary does not cover more than five days of normal living," commented Samir, a teacher from Sharqiya in north Egypt who supports a wife and four children.

"It's just 461 pounds ($82) and I've worked for the ministry of education for over thirty years."

"Wages stay the same but prices are going up. Now my family can only afford meat once every four weeks," said another government worker, Safaa al-Lutfi, "I've almost forgotten how to cook it."

"During the elections we hope they'll put our salaries up."

Sit-ins

Analysts are watching closely to see if Egyptian labour groups could become an influential political force ahead of a parliamentary poll due in October and a presidential election expected next year.

EGYPT'S LABOUR MOVEMENT
Demonstrators at a sit-in protest in Cairo
December 2006 20,000 workers occupy a factory in Mahalla al-Kubra - hundreds of "copy-cat" strikes follow
September 2007 Workers occupy the Misr Helwan Spinning and Weaving Company's factory
April 2008 27,000 workers go on strike at a state-run textile factory
February 2010 Workers at the Tanta Linen, Flax and Oil company clash with police

Recently the pavements alongside government buildings have seen a succession of angry protests bringing workers' grievances into public view.

In February, some 400 employees from the Tanta Linen, Flax and Oil Company, in the Nile Delta, staged a 16-day sit-in.

They were followed by various disgruntled textile workers, employees of an agricultural engineering company and staff from the ministry of local development.

Different professions including taxi drivers and nurses have taken part in industrial actions across the country.

There are common causes for complaints. Many Egyptians have low incomes and feel they have not benefited from recent economic growth.

A lot have experienced problems with new employers following privatisation of state industries.

"This is the largest social movement of its kind in the Arab world since the end of the Second World War," observes Joel Beinin, professor of Middle East History at Stanford University. "It involves some two million people since 2004 in over 3,000 actions."

"The workers have had an enormous degree of success - a very significant proportion of the collective actions have resulted in demands being met," he says.

Successes

The government has typically used concessions to deal with isolated strikes but has responded harshly to attempts at co-ordinated action.

What is happening is that people are getting together, deciding what they need, choosing a leadership to achieve those goals and in many cases actually achieving them
Joel Beinin
Stanford University

In April 2008, there was a heavy security crackdown following efforts to put a strike by 27,000 workers at a state-owned factory in Mahalla al-Kubra at the centre of national action to protest low wages and high inflation.

Since then the labour movement has mainly stuck to bread and butter issues.

Nevertheless Mr Beinin believes it is becoming an important opposition voice.

"I would argue it is the leading force for democracy in Egypt because even if the demands are economic at first, what is happening is that people are getting together, deciding what they need, choosing a leadership to achieve those goals and in many cases actually achieving them."

The latest demonstration was unusual for its anti-government sentiment and close involvement of the political opposition.

'Good sign'

A founder of the Egyptian Movement for Democratic Change, George Ishaq, suggested it could be a turning point.

map

"I am very happy because it is the day of the workers and also the opposition parties and groups are here to support them. It's a good sign," he remarked.

"We are all coming together to call for this minimum salary that will help the poorest people in our society."

It would take wider support and a stronger platform to challenge a political landscape which has been dominated for almost thirty years by President Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party.

However, workers girded by lines of riot police, insisted ministers in surrounding offices should heed their calls for change.

"We can't afford to eat or drink or get an education or pay our rent," said the teacher, Samir. "Yet there are many rich people in this country who don't do any work."

"This government is corrupt. The people in authority now are the businessmen and they stole everything from us - the profits from the state and our children's future."



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