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Workers take to the streets: the strikes of 2007
Published in Daily News Egypt on 30 - 12 - 2007


In 2007 Egypt witnessed an unprecedented level of labor unrest as workers from textile factories to public transport to tax collectors went on strike, mainly over low wages and poor working conditions. According to the Egyptian Workers and Trade Union Watch (EWTUW) there were over 580 industrial actions this year alone.The Egyptian and much of the international press were awash with footage and images of angry workers holding sit-in protests, marching through the streets and reading out demands. The various strikes were particularly sensational given the general silence over labor issues in Egypt, where independent trade unions are illegal. Many analysts pointed to the anti-governmental nature of the strikes, noting workers' demands for the legalization of independent trade unions and the halt of neo-liberal economic reforms, and suggested that they doubled as a form of political protest on a scale that organizations like the Kefaya Movement for Change have failed to achieve.The textile industry saw a series of strikes in 2007 throughout the Nile Delta. By far the largest in terms of size and publicity was at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra. Unrest at this factory first began in late 2006, inspiring a wave of similar strikes in the following months. After workers had seemingly succeeded in securing from the government increased pay and an investigation into alleged corruption within the plant's leadership, their demands were never met. In September this year they walked off the job again and erected a tent-city inside the gates of the plant to support their 25,000-strong protest. For five days groups of employees were televised beating drums and chanting slogans demanding the dismissal of the chairman of the company Mahmoud El-Gebali. The government carried out this demand at the end of November, and also agreed to follow through with the guarantees it had made in December of the previous year about wage rises, bonus payments and improving working conditions. "The workers are very happy, this is a big victory for us, Mohamed El Attar, one of the leaders of the Mahalla movement, told Daily News Egypt. "But our demands haven't all been fulfilled yet. This is not over. Away for the factories, in January railway workers prevented a first-class train from leaving from Cairo to Alexandria, and threatened a national stoppage until the government agreed to their demands. Throughout the strike Metro workers slowed their trains from 55 to 20 miles per hour in solidarity. Metro workers were involved again on May 1, when almost 3,000 transportation workers including bus drivers, ticket collectors and maintenance technicians occupied the Nasr and Fateh bus stations in Nasr City preventing the use of public buses to demand wage increases. The following day 1,000 Metro workers with similar demands joined in. "I can barely afford to feed my family, one Metro Authority employee and father of three told the press. "My monthly salary, which comes to about $80, doesn't last 10 days. Two days of subsequent negotiations resulted in a promise from the transportation ministry that workers' complaints would be looked into. In early December, Railway safety technicians maintained a protest of about 50 men in Ramses station to protest low wages and working conditions, and blamed station masters and higher management for Egypt's notoriously poor railway safety record. Some of their demands were metSoon the striking fever reached Egypt's civil servants. Following a series of strikes that began in April, about 55,000 Real Estate tax collectors, shut down their offices and went on strike. Hundreds of them from all over the country protested outside the Cabinet office in downtown Cairo early December for 10 days demanding increased wages. They demanded that the Real Estate Tax Authority, which is now affiliate to the local municipalities, be returned to the Ministry of Finance, as it was prior to 1974. They also called for the resignation of the head of the Real Estate Tax Authority, Ismail Abdel Rasoul, whom they claim had intentionally misinformed the government with regards to workers' pay rates. After Finance Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali agreed to demands, and promised them a two-month Eid bonus, the protest was disbanded until early January 2008 to allow the government time to formulate the relevant decree.Away from cold December pavements, in August workers at the furnace section of the Helwan Iron and Steel Mills were appalled to find their already modest salaries had been reduced in the form of a bonus cut of 11 percent. Management claimed there had been a decrease in overtime shifts. Workers didn't buy it, and 1,500 of them refused to collect their salaries in protest. After successfully resisting pressure to collect their wages by state security officers who were called in, company chairman Abdel Aziz Hafez offered to reduce the cuts to eight percent, which workers again rejected. Eventually a compromise was reached and bonuses were cut by only three percent. Other strikes of note included that of El-Qawmiya Cement Company in Helwan where 500 workers staged a sit-in protest in May when they weren't paid their promised bonuses. They gathered in front of the office of the CEO Nabil El-Gabri demanding their full annual bonuses, until the arrival of State Security bureau officer Ashraf Shoura who guaranteed their demands would be met. Workers involved in the postal-service, the Suez Canal, telecommunications and garbage collection were all reported to have gone on strikes of varying size during 2007.

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