Workers, activists demand national minimum wage

Hundreds of protesters congregated in front of the cabinet building today in Cairo to demand the implementation of a court ruling to raise the national minimum wage to LE1200 per month.  

The court case was raised by Nagui Rashad, an employee of the South Cairo Grain Mill and a leading figure in the workers’ movement. Lawyers from the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights argued Rashad’s case, which ended with an administrative court ruling on 30 March to overturn an earlier government decision not to set a national minimum wage that takes the rising cost of living into consideration.

The center also called for the activation of the National Council for Wages, which was established according to labor law 12 of 2003 and which was mandated with setting a national minimum wage and identifying means of balancing wages against rising consumer prices.

On 3 April, a delegation of workers went with a copy of the court ruling to the Cabinet, representatives of which declined to meet with them. They subsequently called for today’s protest, which could extend to an open-ended sit-in to demand implementation of the court ruling.

“Today is the beginning. Today we relay our message again to the Cabinet: That we will not hesitate to make another request for the implementation of the court ruling. This is our right,” said Rashad.

In front of him, activists and workers chanted to the beat of drums in the street. Barricades were roughly pushed aside despite the heavy presence of riot police and other security personnel.  “A minimum fair wage, or let this government get out of here,” chanted protesters. “Raise prices more and more. Tomorrow the country will be in flames. Down with Mubarak and all those who raise prices!”

“Uniting workers around one cause–raising the national minimum wage–is something that makes me very happy,” said Rashad, looking at the enthusiastic crowd with a gratified smile.

Rashad explained that implementation of the ruling to set a national minimum wage was a win-win situation that would lead to economic benefits. For one, workers would not be forced to take additional jobs to make ends meet, therefore leaving employment opportunities open for others. From a social perspective, a national minimum wage would also mean the re-strengthening of family bonds, since family members would not need to seek out additional employment to improve their financial positions to the detriment of family life.

“If the government has the genuine political will to revisit its tables of wages, it could easily do so. For example, a progressive tax is a reasonable option, like everywhere else in the world, given the [big income gap between rich and poor]. This is called social justice,” said Rashad.

Similarly, Khaled Ali, head of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights and lead lawyer in the court case, believes that political will is the only thing that will lead to implementation of the ruling. “Egypt has a lot of resources,” he said. “The problem is with corruption.”

He added: “The government represents the marriage between authority and money–and this marriage needs to be broken up.”

“But, we won’t give up,” Ali stressed. “We call for the resignation of [Prime Minister] Ahmad Nazif’s government because it works only for businessmen and ignores social justice. We call for a minimum wage and a maximum wage, as well as the connection of wages to prices. We also call for annual wage increases in line with inflation rates.  We are against the privatization of the health insurance sector and we call for the fixing of all temporary labor contracts.”

Only minutes before, he had led protesters, chanting, “Where’s our money, Nazif? Give us back our money.”

Ali went on to say that workers were embarking on a full-fledged campaign, of which today’s protest was only the first step. “We will be working on media and political mobilization. We will call on the national labor force to engage in gradual civil disobedience. The working class in Egypt will continue to protest until the implementation of the ruling,” he said.

Leading workers from factories and work spaces with recent histories of labor strikes were present at today’s protest.

“I’ve been threatened before. I’ve spent the past two years in the streets looking for my rights and I will spend more years doing the same. This is my right and I am afraid of nothing,” said Hisham Abu Zeid, a worker at the Tanta Flax factory, who, along with fellow workers, went on strike one year ago for six months to demand an increase of their modest wage. They have also been demanding the return of their privatized company to the public sector, where a formal national minimum wage would guarantee them much greater financial security. Recently, they took their strike to the streets of Cairo, in front of the People’s Assembly.

Shaaban Awad Shaaban, a real estate tax employee from Daqahleya, said he had been inspired to partake in today’s protest by the pressure that labor strikes–especially those of real estate workers–have been exerting on the government. He has been a part of the real estate workers’ fight ever since it began. “Pressure has proven to reap results,” he said. “And we apply it through peaceful, legal means.”

Kamal Abu Eta, a leading labor leader in the real estate tax workers’ strike and head of Egypt’s first independent labor union, reckoned that the Egyptian labor force had enough resources available to apply considerable pressure if it wanted to.  “This is just a first step,” he said. “This is just the beginning of a campaign that will witness more strikes. We have many means of exerting pressure. All the production resources are in our hands. We can use them at any point.”

Wael Mohamed provided one example of such pressure. He is a worker at the Mahalla Textile factory, site of Egypt’s biggest labor struggle that began in 2006 and which inspired many subsequent labor actions–including the current demand for a national minimum wage. “We are 25 thousand workers. When we stop working, we definitely exert pressure,” he said. “Our experience shows that we can only achieve our demands by staging strikes.”

For Mohamed, along with many others, active dissent has become the only avenue for achieving a better, more secure life. “I’m not afraid of anything,” he said. “Nothing could be worse than what we’re living through now.”

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