Tens of thousands of Egyptian workers have gone on strike during the first two months of this year; in Alexandria, food workers at a plant owned by Cargill, a US food processing and agricultural corporation, are asking for international support after Cargill locked them out and fired them.
In December, union members held a sit-in at the Cargill-owned National Vegetable Oil Company.
They were protesting the company’s refusal to honor a profit-sharing agreement made with the previous owner of the plant. The workers also accused Cargill of harassment and intimidation.
Cargill closed the factory and had the protesting workers forcibly removed. It then put 84 workers on extended leave–in essence, locking them out.
When Cargill reopened the plant, it hired replacement workers and started mailing dismissal letters to the locked out workers.
The UIF, an international confederation of food and agricultural unions, is urging people around the world to show their solidarity with the Cargill workers by sending messages to the international food giant.
The Cargill workers are only a small fraction of the Egyptian workforce that has been protesting unfair treatment.
In the last month, textile workers, bus drivers, doctors, pharmacists, govenment employees, postal workers, garbage collectors, and others have walked off the job.
Their main complaint is low wages.
The government’s failure to carry through with promised minimum wage increases set off many of these strikes.
After a 2013 coup overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government, the new government promised to revive the economy by investing in public infrastructure and increasing the minimum wage.
The government did increase the minimum wage, but limited the scope of the increase to only a small number of employees.
“For the past six months, the people waited for the government to be the government of the revolution – as they had promised,” said Hoda Kamel, an official of the for Egyptial Federaltion of Independent Trade Unions to the Guardian. “But when January came, people realized it was a trick because the minimum wage is just for a very small part of people working in the government, not for the private-sector or most government workers.”
Among those protesting their exclusion from the minimum wage increase were bus drivers for Cairo’s Public Transit Authority.
They ended a five-day strike on March 1 after the government promised them a permanent monthly bonus and that they would be included in the new minimum wage increase.
Like the bus drivers, workers at the government-owned Mahalla Spinning and Weaving factory thought that their minimum wage would be increased as well.
When they found out that they weren’t covered, they began a sit-in strike on February 10.
The workers recently suspended their strike after the head of the Textile Workers’ Union Abdel Fattah Ibrahim met with the government’s new Minister of Manpower.
Ibrahim told the workers that he thought that the newly installed minister was serious about implementing the wage increase.
The workers agreed to suspend their strike for two months but said that their strike would resume if the promised wage increase was not implemented by then.
Egyptian doctors have also been striking.
Since the 2011 revolution, doctors and other health care professionals have been trying to improve health care services in the country.
That has led to a number of strikes and other job related protests.
The government has promised to make changes, but the changes have been slow in coming.
In January, doctors began conducting partial strikes on Mondays and Wednesdays in hospitals around the country.
“The state of the health system and those who work in it are not satisfactory,” said Rashwan Shaaban, assistant general secretary of the doctors’ union to Al-Ahram. “We have been calling for improvements in education and the quality of the hospitals.”
Physician safety and low pay are other concerns of the doctors.
According to Shaaban, a government should be spending 15 percent of a country’s national income on health care services, but Egypt spends only about 4.6 percent.
Egypt’s recent labor upheaval is said to have been partially responsible for the recent resignation of the government’s Cabinet including the prime minister.
Ibrahim Mehlib, the new prime minister, in a nationally televised speech on March 2 called for an end to the strikes and other labor protests.
He told the workers that their demands would be taken seriously, but then, so did his predecessor.