An Egyptian military court on June 29 sentenced five workers who participated in a sit-in against Petrojet, the Egyptian oil company, to one-year suspended sentences for violating a decree issued last March by the Egyptian government outlawing strikes, sit-ins, or any other activity that disrupts production or services provided by government agencies or businesses.
The five workers were the first to be tried under the edict that was meant to curtail the wave of strikes and other protests by workers over wages, working conditions, and terms of employment that have taken place in Egypt since the overthrow of the Mubarak government earlier this year.
Five other workers were arrested on July 3 for participating in a partial strike against contractors that provide services to the Suez Canal authority.
“(The Egyptian authorities) are sending a panic message to all workers that protesting and freedom of assembly is not a right but a crime,” said one of the attorneys for the sentenced workers, Khaled Ali, to Al-Masry Al-Youn, one of Egypt’s leading daily newspapers.
The five Petrojet workers were participating in a sit-in of about 200 workers at Egypt’s oil ministry. The were protesting their layoffs. The workers had been working under temporary contracts, some for as long as ten years, but Petrojet did not renew their contracts when they ended.
Thousands of workers who work for seven private companies that service the Suez Canal have been on strike since June 14. The five who were arrested had been summoned by the military police to discuss the demands of the strikers only to be arrested after their arrival.
The strike began after Admiral Ahmed Fadel, CEO of the Suez Canal Authority, did not extend the terms of an agreement he made with Egypt’s manpower ministry to raise pay and pensions for canal workers to the those who work for the canal’s subcontractors. The agreement called for bonus payments to be folded into the regular salary schedule for workers, which would raise regular pay and increase pensions. The agreement also called for the authority to continue paying a bonus.
Workers who work directly for the authority received the raise, but those working for the companies that service the canal did not. The striking workers accused Admiral Fadel of failing to keep a promise to extend the agreement to everyone who worked at the canal.
“Our colleagues who do exactly the same work in the Authority get a bonus of LE50 ($8.40), which was recently raised to LE100 ($16.80). Their salaries are triple ours; what can justify this?” said Mohamed Hagag, the head of the union of the Canal Company for Ports, the biggest of the seven companies with 2,000 workers to Ahram Online.
The Petrojet and Suez Canal workers’ actions are only a small part of the labor unrest that has broken out since the fall of Mubarak. During the first half of 2011, there have been 338 sit-ins, 158 strikes, 259 demonstrations, and 161 worker protest, most of which are now illegal under the anti-strike decree. According to Awlad Al-Ard Association for Human Rights, so far 22 workers who participated in one of the outlawed activities have been arrested.
“This law is corrupt and exposes contradictory actions by both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the government,” said Kamal Abbas of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services. “While they show unexplained procrastination in trying figures of the old regime, they hurry to try the poor workers who ask for a better living.”