The Egyptian government on Wednesday decreed that fighting for better pay, better working conditions, and the enforcement of the country’s existing labor laws is illegal. The decree is intended to stop a surge of worker strikes, demonstrations, and sit-ins that began before the fall of Egypt’s former dictator Hosni Mubarak and have continued despite threats from the military and pleas by self-appointed leaders of the movement that overthrew Mubarak.
Under the decree, it is a criminal offense to participate in a strike, demonstration, or sit-in that disrupts the economy. Calling for these actions or encouraging others to participate in them is punishable by up to year in prison and a fine of one-half million Egyptian pounds ($84,060). All workers are subject to the new law regardless of whether they work in the private or public sector.
“Issuing a law to criminalize strikes now will be unfair to the revolution (for) which about 1,000 Egyptians paid their lives,” said a statement issued by the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services, which played a leading role in mobilizing workers to support the January revolution. “It is not an acceptable or useful solution to the current problems. On the contrary, it will widen the gap between the people and the authorities.”
The cabinet issued the new decree saying that the strikes, sit-ins, and demonstrations disrupting business were not necessary because the cabinet “ is working on a new policy to deal with employment and wages.” The decree will expire when the current state of emergency is lifted. Egypt has been ruled under a state of emergency since 1981 when President Anwar Sadat was assassinated. A number of workers including postal workers, teachers, hospital employees, and police were still on strike at the time that the decree was issued.
About 6,000 teachers in the province of Qena went out on strike on March 1 demanding permanent jobs for teachers working under temporary contracts. The day after the strike began, the Ministry of Education said that temporary teachers with at least three years on the job would be offered permanent contracts if they pass an exam. The striking teachers rejected the government’s proposal and said that they would stay on strike until their demand that all teachers working under temporary and precarious conditions be given full-time, permanent status.
Many of the strikes that have taken place over two last few months have been over demands that the country’s current labor law be enforced. About 300 workers at a Samuel Tex Drapery factory went on strike for a 7 percent pay increase and to demand that the company give workers annual leave, not force them to work overtime, and not require new workers to sign a resignation form, which makes it easier for the company to fire workers and prevent them from collecting severance pay in the event of layoffs. All of these last three demands are covered by existing labor law, which for the most part is not enforced.
Even though the decree outlawing workers’ actions for justice was issued by the cabinet, the military is running the country now, and it alone has the authority to decide whether such a decree is issued. And as it turns out, the military is heavily invested in business. Members of the military high command own companies that among other things make electric appliances, bottled water, olive oil, pesticides, and optical equipment. They also own water treatment plants, hotels, nurseries, and catering business. Retired military officers also sit on the boards of directors of many Egyptian companies. Companies owned by military leaders employ tens of thousands of workers.
When asked by reporter Austin Mackell whether military leaders had links to the business elite, Egyptian journalist Ahmed Atleya replied, “They are the business elite.”