Why are workers protesting?

Someone is always asking, “Why do workers start with strikes and occupations instead of first making demands and waiting for a response?” Or, “Can the government or the president meet all the demands at once? Why don’t they give them a chance to follow through?”

In fact, workers always start with demands and good-faith negotiations. It is the other party that pushes them to strike, when it promises and fails to deliver, or when it signs legally binding agreements that officials fail to honor and treat as non-existent. How can workers be asked to trust them after this?

There are three examples of this underway now, in three different fields: The Ain Sokhna Port workers, civil servants with the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration and finally those who passed the atomic energy civil service exams but are being denied jobs. In each case those responsible for not meeting the workers' demands are government officials — two ministers and one presidential advisor.

Ain Sokhna Port workers have gone on strike three times this year — not because they are especially fond of striking and shutting down operations, as some seem to think, but because the board of Dubai Ports World has broken every pledge and abrogated every agreement it made with the workers, whether signed by senior local officials in Suez Governorate or by ministers and state officials.

Workers first went on strike in February 2012 demanding the removal and prosecution of corrupt port figures, the right to set an occupational wage structure to end wage disparities for the same job and the right to profit sharing and hazard pay. This was after the workers had spent months in negotiations with the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration with no results. They were thus forced to strike for their demands, which even officials have recognized as legitimate and legal.

As a result of the workers’ persistence, despite attempts to smear the strike effort, a collective labor agreement was signed in the presence of the governor of Suez, the commander of the third army and the minister of manpower and immigration. Some terms of the agreement were implemented, but the administration dragged its feet on other parts until October. When workers demanded that the terms of the agreement be fulfilled, the administration fired seven of them. The administration failed to respond to all attempts at intervention to resolve the problem, forcing the workers to strike for a second time in defense of their rights and those of their colleagues and against the arbitrary dismissals.

But before the second strike, workers tried other means first. The Egyptian Federation of the Independent Trade Unions approached Minister of Manpower Khaled al-Azhari on their behalf, asking him to intervene to stop the dismissals. He told them there was nothing he could do and they would have to accept the firings, because that was the labor law.

And then after nearly two weeks of protest, the workers ended their strike when Presidential Advisor Mohamed Fouad Gadallah and Deputy Minister of Manpower for Negotiations Nahed al-Ishri approached the workers and agreed to rescind the dismissal order and question the seven workers about accusations that they incited a strike. An agreement was signed by the executive director of DP World and representatives of the independent union. But on Wednesday 19 December, workers found a notice posted declaring the dismissal of the seven workers. Workers contacted all officials who were present during negotiations and made promises, but no one responded. What would you do if you were in their place?

The workers announced an occupation amid threats to dismiss even more of them, but thus far, they have not decided on a work stoppage. Will an official intervene before the workers are compelled to suspend the loading and off-loading of ships?

The second case involves civil servants with the local directorates of the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration in several governorates. For years, they have approached ministers with their demands, complaining of poor occupational and financial conditions and clear discrimination in wages and other benefits. Their colleagues working in the ministerial office make double their wage and their peers in other ministries earn up to ten times what they do.

The workers have forwarded their demands to every labor minister since the revolution, starting with Ahmed al-Borei and up to Azhari; every time they get promises that are not honored, ostensibly because of the lack of resources, although senior ministry employees make thousands of pounds a month while other employees receive only crumbs, and even these crumbs often don’t make it to every governorate. This suggests the problem is not so much a shortage of resources as misdistribution.

Recently, Minister of Manpower Khaled al-Azhari appointed several new heads of the ministry’s provincial directorates. Among them were several persons who had been punished by the ministry for squandering public funds and whose names had been referred to the Central Accounting Agency. Employees in the ministry's directorate offices rejected these figures, and workers from the Giza Directorate sought to meet with the minister to discuss their rejection of the person chosen to head their office. After the minister declined to meet, saying he had a Cabinet meeting, the workers met with his advisors, explained the problem and waited for a response. It came swiftly enough: The next day, the directorate heads were sent out to assume their new positions. It was only natural that the workers then responded with a sit-in — if you were in their place, what would you do?

The third case involves candidates who passed the exams for appointment in the atomic energy authority, at a time when we are in desperate need of such workers. They obtained all the formal approvals and financial confirmation, but for five months they have been denied their right to work and Egypt has been denied their efforts and capabilities. What would you do in their place? On Sunday 23 December, they staged a protest to demand their right to work from the minister of electricity. The only response of officials was to summon the Central Security Forces and the military police to disperse them and arrest three of them.

Workers in all these cases and others are not especially enamored of protests, strikes, occupations and demonstrations; they are not born provocateurs. They have simply been forced to protest, driven by their miserable state and poor conditions to scream to the high heavens, hoping someone will hear them. Unfortunately, they are not only ignored, they and their demands are smeared and scoffed at. But since there is nothing more precious than one’s daily bread, workers’ protests will continue. If you want to stop them, listen to their demands. As recent history proves, the armies of repression and smear tactics are of no avail.

Fatemah Ramadan is a leading trade unionist in the Egyptian Federation for Independent Trade Unions. This is an edited translation of a piece originally published in Al-Masry al-Youm Arabic web.

The article was translated by Mandy McClure.

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