A tale of two Labor Days

Egypt commemorated Labor Day in two different locations, on two different days, and in markedly different ways. The first, a state-sponsored celebration, took place at a grand conference hall on April 30, while the second consisted of an indignant commemoration organized by independent labor organizations in a somber conference hall on May 1.

This year was the first since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 that members of Egypt’s independent unions, labor organizers, and leftist activists have not commemorated Labor Day in Tahrir Square.

This is because the square is occupied by police and military forces Tallal Shokr of the independent Egyptian Democratic Labor Confederation (EDLC) told Mada Masr.

“The recently issued Protest Law could be used against us even on Labor Day, he added.” This law issued in November 2013 grants police forces sweeping powers to disperse and arrest participants in unauthorized public congregations of more than 10 people.

“Last Labor Day we marched several kilometers throughout Cairo. This year is very different, however,” Shokr said.

The EDLC, and the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), along with the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUW) staged their event at a modest mid-sized conference hall near Ramses Square. It was more of a commemoration, while the state-sponsored proceedings were celebratory.

The state-sponsored event, set to take place at the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace, was relocated to a spacious conference hall in eastern Cairo’s Nasr City district reportedly due to security concerns.

On Wednesday, interim President Adly Mansour delivered his Labor Day address in the Nasr City Conference Center, to an audience of overwhelmingly middle-aged men in suits and ties, along with some in military uniform. The Cabinet was in attendance, along with top generals and leaders of the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).

Although Mansour is due to step down from office shortly after presidential elections scheduled for May 26 and 27, he made several announcements including amendments to trade union and labor legislation, the introduction of a specialized judicial system to process labor disputes and facilitate arbitration, and improved working conditions and healthcare services. Mansour also announced the restructuring of the country’s ailing textile sector, re-operation of stalled factories and companies, renationalization of seven companies, a halt to privatization and the achievement of self-sufficiency in production.

The interim president called on workers to increase production and on employers to respect their workers and uphold their rights.

Mansour conceded that the country was “experiencing an energy crisis” which would affect industry, but also pointed to the “black shadows of terrorism” which he said would harm a number of industries notably tourism.

Mansour’s speech was heavy on nationalistic rhetoric, with a sprinkling of religious language. The judge-turned-president declared that he “honors the workers’ productive forearms, watchful eyes and their coarse hands beloved by God and his Messenger (PBUH)” adding that the workers are the builders of a solid foundation for the nation.

Members of the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) applauded as the interim president issued his announcements standing before a large ETUF logo.

ETUF, established in 1957, claims a membership of over 4.5 million workers. Meanwhile between the two independent federations of EFITU, established on January 30, 2011, and EDLC, set up in October 2011, membership of independent unions number over 2 million.

Independent labor union organizations were skeptical and dismissive of Mansour’s speech. On Thursday evening, jobless workers and union organizers sacked from their companies chanted, “Adly Mansour, Adly Mansour.. The workers are denied their wages” and “the right to strike is legitimate..Against poverty and hunger.”

Kamal Abbas of the CTUWS addressed his audience energetically, saying that, “among those who celebrated Labor Day with the government yesterday are individuals who supported the corrupt Mubarak regime for 30 years.”

“They include people who sold off and privatized companies for far less than their actual value,” he said in his speech. “They include people who want to turn back the hands of time to the way things were before the January 25 Revolution.”

“As for us, we resisted the oppression of the Mubarak regime for 30 years. We helped bring down his dictatorship and that of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.”

Abbas ending his speech saying, “We must be prepared for darker days to come, and for further crackdowns.”

A veiled female worker stood up and shouted, “This is the darkest Labor Day we’ve experienced. We have nothing to celebrate this year.”

In his speech, Saad Shaaban, president of the EDLC excoriated the interim president, saying that he was “celebrating Labor Day while Egypt’s workers are jailed for exercising their right to strike,” pointing also to the sacking of workers who have participated in organizing independent unions.

The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) issued unemployment figures for the year 2013 to coincide with Labor Day, putting the unemployment rate at 13.2 percent of the country’s total workforce of nearly 24 million, or about 3.7 million unemployed.

Workers at the Labor Day conference dismissed these figures as unrealistically low rate, pointing to disguised unemployment, seasonal unemployment and partial employment.

Gamal Othman a unionist sacked from the Tanta Flax and Oils Company – one of seven companies which had its privatization contract nullified by court order since 2011 – addressed the audience speaking about privatization. 

“Our factories are stalled not because of a lack of workers or resources,” he said. “It is because of the government’s lack of will to re-operate these factories and companies.”

“We want to work and to push the wheel production as government officials keep telling us to do. Yet these same authorities are denying us our jobs, and keeping us from re-operating our factories,” Othman said.

Ending his speech on a somber note, Othman said, “Today is not a day to celebrate labor rights or gains. It is an occasion to contemplate the plight of Egypt’s industries, workers, and the mass violations of our basic rights.”

A number of speakers criticized the government for allowing employers to sack workers en masse, along with the sacking of local union committees. A number of companies were named in particular in this regard: Ceramica Cleopatra, Titan-Portland Cement, Cargill/National Vegetable Oils Company, Alexandria Postal Authority, Faragello Foods and Orascom National Steel. 

Malek Bayoumi, president of the EFITU took to the podium and called for the unification of his federation and the EDLC, along with other non-affiliated independent unions. Greeted with applause, the call was one of a series of such calls made over the course of nearly two years.


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