IPS – Morsi Slams New Lid on Labour Rights | Inter Press Service
- Workers played a pivotal role in the mass uprising that led to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. Now, two years on, the same labour movement that helped topple the Arab dictator is locked in a stalemate with the government and employers over long-denied labour rights and untenable working conditions.
In recent months, thousands of disenfranchised workers across Egypt have taken collective action to secure better wages and working conditions, paralysing sectors of an economy still recovering from the 2011 uprising. The country’s new Islamist-led government has promised to resolve labour disputes quickly and equitably, but faces formidable challenges as it grapples with restive workers, unyielding employers, and depleted state coffers.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative Islamic movement that dominated last year’s parliamentary and presidential polls, ran on a platform that emphasised social justice. Yet the once-outlawed group has a poor track record on worker rights, and a history of anti-union activities.
“We had a revolution but the only change is from (Mubarak’s) National Democratic Party to the Muslim Brotherhood,” says labour activist Kareem El-Beheiry. “The Brotherhood has never done anything for the labour movement, and never supported workers or independent unions.”
President Mohamed Morsi, a former Brotherhood leader, has faced a number of tests since taking office last June. There were over 2,000 labour protests in 2012, with the rate of protests more than doubling during the second half of the year, according to a new study by the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR).
“We cannot but notice the clear failure of Morsi’s administration to resolve these protests or even set a clear plan for dealing with their demands. Rather, the administration has continued to adopt the same old policies, which only aggravates the matter,” the ECESR report said.
Labour Minister Khaled El-Azhary, a prominent Brotherhood member, has repeatedly urged striking workers to return to work while the government considers their demands. He says Egypt’s fragile economy cannot afford any more loss of production and must be given a chance to recover from the 2011 revolution.
Egypt is struggling to plug deficits in the state budget and balance of payments as it burns through its last remaining foreign reserves. Tourism, a key foreign revenue earner, plummeted after the uprising and is still off by 20 percent. Foreign investment has retreated, and many projects remain on hold due to ongoing political and economic uncertainty.
While the government has generally tried to avoid confrontations with striking workers, it has taken a tough stand on those who “obstruct the wheels of production.” In the months following Morsi’s appointment, riot police broke up labour protests and arrested local strike organisers, while public sector employees found engaging in collective actions were fired, transferred or referred to disciplinary hearings.
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