Workers, not voters, worry Egypt’s government

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak acknowledged this month that many of his compatriots have yet to benefit from faster economic growth as he launched his ruling party's campaign for Nov. 28 elections.

Mohamed Abdel Moneim, who takes home 350 Egyptian pounds (US$60) a month from a textile factory in the industrial city of Mahalla El Kubra, north of Cairo, says he has waited too long.

"I do not buy meat regularly. I can't, maybe once or twice every few months," the gaunt young man in ragged overalls said while taking a break outside the factory.

"The government is not doing enough, honestly speaking. There is so much more to be done to … increase our wages."

With the parliamentary vote and a presidential poll in 2011 posing little threat to the National Democratic Party's (NDP) grip on power, analysts say the biggest flashpoint lies in the industrial heartlands of the Arab world's most populous country.

Moneim's factory, operated by state giant Misr Spinning and Weaving Co., turned into a battle zone two years ago, pitting workers against security forces in the culmination of a year of protests against low wages, surging prices and privatizations as the government pushed to liberalize swathes of the economy.

Two people died, hundreds were arrested and plainclothes security men took control of the textile mill to force strikers back to work. The workers wrung concessions from the state on pay and subsidized food, but say most remain unfulfilled.

Political protests can be quickly smothered under a state of emergency in place since Mubarak came to power in 1981, making factory floors likelier arenas for challenges to public order.

Factory workers have led most violent demonstrations in recent years.

A strike in December 2006 by thousands of spinning factory employees led to concessions on pay and bonuses, encouraging a wave of strikes and other protests across Egypt since.

Relatively new labor associations, operating outside the official trade federations widely seen as allied to the NDP, have begun to win victories for their members.

Their struggle has unfolded mostly outside the traditional political system. Cairo University analyst Hassan Nafaa said most factory workers were likely to boycott the election.

"The Egyptian workers' movement is a force with immense potential social and political power," said Anne Alexander, a research fellow at Cambridge University.

"Although a large proportion of the demands raised during these strikes have been economic … some groups of workers have started to make political claims, including calling for a rise in the national minimum wage, and demanding the right to organize freely," she said.

Last month, a court ruled that the government must set a minimum wage that takes soaring prices into account. In response a government body proposed raising minimum monthly pay to 400 pounds from 35 pounds, a level set way back in 1984.

Many workers are skeptical, saying the government has still not honored pay increases promised after the 2008 protests.

Paradoxically, the labor discontent has coincided with years of healthy-looking economic growth in Egypt, where a slice of the population is getting richer fast — witness the crowds thronging Cairo's smart new shopping malls.

Gross domestic product growth held at 5 percent after the global financial crisis struck and the NDP has pledged average growth of 7 percent in the next five years, which it says will create enough jobs to cut the 9.5 percent unemployment rate.

The goal has gained new urgency as prices of staples like meat and tomatoes doubled or even tripled within a few months. The official annual food inflation rate stands at 22 percent.

"Workers will not feel any progress until the government raises their pay or controls prices," said Khaled Ali, head of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, who defends workers in lawsuits against their employers.

"The only people affected by the high growth rate are the rich people and the businessmen, but the poor people and workers are not feeling it and will never feel the high growth rates."

In the Nile Delta town of Tanta, dozens of workers from the state-owned Petroleum Trading Service Company downed tools last month in a strike lasting more than two weeks to demand their pay be raised to match the salaries of new recruits.

"Minister Sameh Fahmy, where are you?" they shouted in an appeal to Egypt's oil minister, the NDP parliamentary candidate for Cairo's upmarket Heliopolis and Nasr City districts.

"We have worked six to nine years and get 214 pounds a month," said Ayman Aboul Soud, one of the workers.

They say their strike has spread to most of the 1,200 workers at the factory, although it is still functioning. "The workers will continue to protest, and the protests will get worse than those of 2008 as long as the government doesn't fix the problems of low wages and high prices," said Ali.   

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