Egypt rebellion spreads to sprawling state economy
Industrial action sweeps through Egypt state sector.
February 14, 2011 11:51 by Reuters
The spirit of rebellion that toppled Hosni Mubarak has swept through Egypt’s vast public sector, inspiring workers fed up with meagre wages and poor working conditions to take to the streets in protest.
From state-owned financial institutions in Cairo to Alexandria’s seaport, workers went on strike on Sunday, disrupting operations and forcing the central bank to declare an unscheduled bank holiday on Monday.
The chant of “Leave, leave, leave!” moved from Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the protest movement that overthrew the president, into the surrounding streets of Cairo’s financial district as workers demanded their bosses’ ouster too.
Outside a state-owned insurance company just a few metres from the square, hundreds of workers were demanding the departure of managers they blame for grievances such as the enormous gap between high and low earners.
“I have been working for five years in the company,” said Hala Fawzi, a mother of two. “Finally we have been encouraged to come out and speak,” she said, waving a letter written a year ago laying out her grievances against her employer.
For her 28-hour a week job, Fawzi, 34, said she is paid 100 Egyptian pounds ($20) a month — low even by the standards of a public sector which pays teachers about 400 pounds a month.
Apart from a meagre wage, Fawzi complained that her employer, The Insurance Holding Company, had failed to give her a formal contract after more than four years of work. “We want equality,” she said. “We want the head of the holding company held to account, the previous one and the current one,” said Sayyed Abdullah, 35.
The state employs at least 5.7 million in a sprawling public sector criticised by economists as an unproductive relic of the statist economic polices of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led Egypt after the army first seized power in 1952.
Annual average gross domestic product per capita is just over $2,000. Poverty contributed to the revolt against Mubarak. A fifth of the population lives on less than a $1 a day.
Tunisia, whose popular uprising inspired the Egyptian revolt, has also experienced a wave of industrial action since President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled.
In Egypt, there have been reports of protests, sit-ins and strikes at state-owned institutions including the stock exchange, textile firms, media organisations, steel firms, the postal service and railways, the police and the health ministry.
The workers cite an array of grievances. What unites them is a new sense of being able to speak out in the post-Mubarak era.
Tarek Amer, chairman of state-owned National Bank of Egypt, the country’s biggest commercial bank, submitted his resignation on Sunday after angry employees prevented him from reaching his office, bankers said. He could not be reached for comment.
The central bank, which appoints state bank chairmen, had not yet accepted the resignation, the bankers added. Private banks have been largely unaffected so far. Outside the headquarters of Banque Misr, another state-owned institution, a 10-minute walk from Tahrir Square, chants of “Leave, leave, leave” echoed into the night.
“The people’s demands are legitimate: wage increases, fixed contracts,” said bank employee Ahmed Abdul Fattah, dressed in a suit and tie as he watched the protest.Demonstrators held aloft signs demanding full contracts and an end to outsourcing.
Ahmed Qais, 39, a bank worker employed by an outsourcing company, earns 500 pounds for cleaning and working in the bank’s stores. More than half of his pay is absorbed by his rent, he said. “I want to be an employee of the bank, to get a contract, like any other colleague, so I can live.” (Additional reporting by Patrick Werr; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)