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Key force in Tahrir Square: Egypt's labor movement

Kamal Abu Eitta endured years of torture and arrest trying to build an independent labor movement in Egypt. Now organized labor is trying to emerge as a real force in Egypt's transition.

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Decades of arrests and torture finally came to a head when Abu Eitta and thousands of his tax-office colleagues staged several strikes beginning in 2007, eventually pressuring the government to increase their salary by more than 500 percent.

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Under Abu Eitta’s direction, 29 grassroots committees comprised of over 40,000 members across the country gained legal status in 2009 as the Real Estate Tax Authority (RETA) – the nation’s first legal independent union.

Joel Beinin, a Stanford University professor of Middle East history and expert on Egypt’s labor movement, estimates that at least 60 unions have formed since. Thirty of those are now under the umbrella of the new, independent trade federation that Abu Eitta and his colleagues established earlier this year.

Revolutionary impact

Egypt’s labor force, which makes up nearly a third of the nation’s population, played an important role in the years leading up to the still-unsecured revolution.

Dr. Beinin sees the last decade of mobilization by various political and social groups – many of them workers – as one of the driving forces behind the revolution. There were more than 2,600 demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, and gatherings from 1998 to 2008, according to data compiled by the United States-based Solidarity Center. “This was a huge laboratory for democracy,” Beinin says.

In addition to low wages (the minimum was 118 Egyptian pounds a month at the start of the year, about $20), temporary contracts, and years without independent representation, workers have been subject to harsh working environments that are comparable to those in America in the early 1900s, experts say.

Hassan Sayyed has been welding copper in a factory since he was a young teenager, working six days a week for seven hours a day with no break for more than four decades. He makes $5 a day. “I have a complex about marriage because my parents always fought when I was younger – they were always fighting about money,” says his daughter, Nermine.

Still fighting

Labor strikes in Egypt were seen as recently as this week. To try to strike a balance between meeting protester’s demands without widening the budget deficit, the country's interim military rulers bumped spending on social programs and set a minimum wage for government workers at 684 pounds in a revised budget.

That's nearly six times greater than the previous minimum wage, but labor organizers had been demanding 1,200 pounds. Labor in general remains furious at the pace of change, though the collapse of tourism and investment due to this year's upheaval has left Egypt in a fiscal bind.

Magda Kandil of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies argues that the military council should have established channels for communication with protesters to help flesh out compromises rather than simply partially conceding to their demands. “The concessions have led to more protests and given people the reason to think protesting will work out in their interest,” Dr. Kandil says.

Beinin says it is still unclear how politically influential labor will be leading up to and following parliamentary and presidential elections, currently scheduled to begin in September.

But Abu Eitta, for one, vows to camp out in Tahrir Square until his demands are met. At the protest today, he blended into the chanting crowd, beaming and sporting a baseball cap bearing his trade union’s name, and wearing a pin of the Egyptian flag.


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