Property tax collectors across Egypt converged on Hussein Hegazy Street in central Cairo on 11 August for a strike in protest at the finance minister’s refusal to honour a recent agreement to set up a welfare fund.
Around 2,000 striking tax collectors filled the street – chanting, waving placards and banging drums. Women activists, some wearing the niqab face veil, led the chants. Many, like Madeeha from Cairo, had brought their children to the protest. “They should know their mother sweats in order to bring food on their table”, she told Al‑Masry al‑Youm newspaper.
At the end of July, the minister agreed to pay employees of the property tax agency a retirement lump sum equivalent to 110 months pay. This welfare fund was to be administered by the independent RETA union which represents the majority of tax collectors.
Within days, however, finance minister Yusuf Butrus Ghali had gone back on the deal, instead calling in the corrupt, government-backed General Union of Bank, Insurance and Financial Workers to run the fund. Independent union activists moved swiftly to organise national protests, and by 11 August they were on strike.
The independent union’s roots are deep in the struggle. In December 2007 striking tax collectors occupied Hussein Hegazy Street for 12 days to win a 325 percent pay rise.
Their strike committees became the building blocks for Egypt’s first independent union since the 1950s. The union now has the backing of around 40,000 out of 55,000 tax agency employees, despite a ferocious campaign of intimidation from the government-backed unions.
Leading activists in the independent union also face daily threats from the state. Tareq Mustafa, the union’s treasurer, has been warned he could face prosecution and potentially a lengthy jail sentence for collecting union subs “illegally”.
The strikers in Hussein Hegazy Street voted to suspend their action late on Tuesday 11 August as leading union activists began negotiations with the government, but the campaign will continue.
The tax collectors are not alone. Over the past few weeks the simmering anger of thousands of workers has turned once again into open confrontations with the state and the bosses.
The postal workers’ dispute over pay and the imposition of new working conditions took step forward on 20 July with a large protest outside the national postal service headquarters in Cairo.
Meanwhile, according to blogger and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy, the textile sector is “on fire” with strikes. Even experts employed by the ministry of justice have adopted the tactics of sit-ins and strikes. Earlier this month 1,500 of them rallied outside ministry buildings demanding job security.
Growing unemployment in the private sector is part of the reason for the recent rash of strikes, according to a report by the Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS). Thousands of Egyptian workers have been laid off or seen their hours cut as the world economic crisis has bitten into employers’ profit margins.
Workers in private sector companies are more disposable than their colleagues in the public sector as fewer of them have contracts or any kind of formal job security. The QIZ export zones are particularly notorious for their horrendous conditions and lack of protection for workers. Factories in these zones can export to the US without paying tariffs – so long as the finished item includes at least 10.5 percent Israeli material.
Alaa Gameel told Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper that he had been working 12 hour shifts for 11 Egyptian pounds a day (around £1.10) at the Abul Sebae textile mill in Mahalla al-Kubra since he was fourteen years old.
He has no contract and was forced to sign an undated “letter of resignation” when he began work. Yet even the QIZ zones have been rocked by strikes, including a long-running dispute at the Abul Sebae mill over the late payment of salaries. Around 500 workers at the mill were reported to be on strike on 12 August.
The long-running strike at Tanta Flax and Oil company may point to a shift in tactics by the government-controlled official unions, raising new challenges for the workers’ movement.
The company was privatised in 2005 and sold to a Saudi investor. Since then, workers say their conditions have worsened, wages have been paid late, and nine union activists have been sacked.
For the first time during the current strike wave – and almost the first time since the 1950s – the General Union of Textile Workers (GUTW) initially gave official backing to the workers’ action, even providing strike pay.
The government-controlled union has violently opposed almost every other strike by textile workers, provoking workers at the Indorama factory in Shibin al-Kom to parade a coffin labelled with the name of the head of the GUTW during their 2007 strike. Thousands resigned from the GUTW in Mahalla al-Kubra.
Hisham Fu’ad from the Socialist Studies Centre argues, however, that no-one should be fooled into thinking that the head of the GUTW, Sa’id al-Gohary, has had a sudden change of heart. “This scab union just wants to control the workers by pretending to lead the movement, or hopes to improve its image in Egypt and abroad,” he says.
On 9 August, after over 70 days on strike, Al-Gohary instructed the local union committee to suspend its action following minor concessions on the payment of allowances.
Activists at the plant rejected the ultimatum and vowed to continue. They organised a picket which became a blockade of the nearby highway when riot police provoked the crowd.
For Hisham Fu’ad, the Tanta Oil and Flax strike is doubly significant because the workers have moved “from partial economic demands to the highly political issue of calling for renationalisation of their company. Thus workers have shifted from carrying pictures of Mubarak to attacking the government.”
Workers’ willingness to defy the government-controlled union officials and continue the strike also sets an important example by reasserting the leadership of rank and file activists in the dispute.
Attempts by the union bureaucrats to derail strikes by offering “support” may become more common in future, however.
Labour lawyer Haitham Muhammadain told journalists back in May that the official Egyptian Trade Union Federation leaders had adopted a new policy of backing “small-scale” workers’ strikes.
Independent union activists have, in the past two weeks, come under intense pressure from the state, the employers and the government-controlled official unions. Two workers from the Abul Sebae textile plant in Mahalla al‑Kubra were arrested on 2 August on what independent union activists say are fabricated charges.
Sources close to the Higher Committee to Defend Postal Workers’ Rights, which has been leading the postal workers’ campaign for better pay and working conditions, say that one of the committee’s key activists was recently sacked, while other postal workers have been arrested on charges of “fomenting strikes”.
A strike by workers in a Suez fertiliser plant was suspended on 2 August under police pressure. According to a protest statement circulated by the Socialist Studies Centre in Cairo vans of riot police swooped on the plant to force a path through the picket lines at the gate for a handful of scabs.
Despite this repression, workers are strengthening links between their struggles. Postal workers are attempting to spread the success of the tax collectors’ union to new areas. International solidarity has also played an important role in encouraging striking workers to keep up the fight to build independent unions.
Rush messages of support for the tax collectors to [email protected]