Since the end of the month of Ramadan, a new wave of labour strikes and protests in the public sector have spread across Egypt.
Striking workers are putting forward various economic and political demands on the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
In dispute after dispute, workers seem to focus on two main issues: raising wages, and purging different government-owned factories and institutions of corrupt officials from the Mubarak era.
For example, 22,000 workers at the country’s largest textile factory in Mahallah city in the Nile Delta, the Egypt Weaving and Textile Company, have announced that they will begin an open-ended strike over wages and benefits on September 10.
Meanwhile, teachers and university professors are also preparing for nationwide actions in the middle of the month over wages, work conditions and issues of workplace democracy.
A recent spike in strike action seems to reflect a sense that many workers in the public sector have run out of patience with Sharaf’s government, which made a number of promises to the public to improve living standards when it first took office last March, but has not adequately delivered.
For example, Sharaf’s cabinet refused to honour a three-year-old court order that mandated that the government raise the national minimum wage for workers to LE1,200 per month.
Instead, Sharaf told workers that his government could only commit to raise wages for everyone to LE700, and promised to do so by July, but failed to deliver even on this much lower figure.
Moreover, Sharaf’s cabinet has also failed so far to put a cap on the excessive salaries it pays to top officials in the public sector, a widely popular demand among public sector workers.
To add insult to injury, many workers think that Sharaf has, for the most part, treated Mubarak-era officials with kid gloves, and dismissed only a handful from high positions.
In fact, most Egyptian workers across the country come to work every morning, seven months after they played a key role in toppling the former dictator, to be greeted by the same old bureaucrats and authoritarian figures from the Mubarak years.
Workers at the Egyptian Postal Services Authority happen to be one such disillusioned and disgruntled group.
Now entering week two, a strike by thousands of low-paid postal workers is continuing over economic and political demands concerning the management of the Egyptian Postal Services Authority and the government of Essam Sharaf.
Strikers began to shut down all operations in 50 per cent of Egypt’s post offices in ten different governorates since the middle of last week.
In the governorates of Qena, North Sinai, Minya, Sharqiya, Beni Suef, Fayoum, Luxor and Aswan, workers started walking the picket lines four days ago.
In two other governorates, Ismailiya and Gharbiya, the strike began ten days ago, and remains solid.
Workers are demanding that Sharaf purge the publicly owned Postal Services of dozens of corrupt managers and over-paid consultants.
Workers are also demanding a 7 per cent annual pay increase to keep up with inflation and a 200 per cent bonus for meeting annual production goals.
The recently-formed independent unions of postal employees called for the strike, and have chosen a strike committee of six rank-and-file representatives from various geographic districts to negotiate a settlement with the government.
Postal workers have accumulated a long list of grievances against postal officials during the 30-year reign of former president Mubarak.
Hisham Abdel-Latif, the president of the Cairo branch of the independent union, told Ahram Online that postal workers feel bitter due to the astronomical differences between their meagre salaries and out-of-control compensation packages that top officials in the services receive.
For example, Abdel-Latif said that total compensation for an employee after 15 years on the job does not exceed LE1500.
On the other hand, according to Abdel-Latif, “the director of the Postal Services pays 26 of his top consultants an average of LE25,000 per month in salaries.”
“These consultants are mostly retired police and army generals who are friends of the director. They do not offer anything new to the Authority, and simply drain our resources,” he argued.
In addition, the president of the independent union told Ahram Online that the Postal Authority’s director pays three of his four top deputies the vast sum of LE168,000 per month.
Abdel-Latif was unable to confirm the actual salary or total compensation package of the Authority’s director.
“The actual salary of our CEO remains a total secret for us workers,” he complained.
Last winter, in the weeks immediately after the ousting of former president Mubarak, postal workers organised several strikes and protests in different parts of the country to articulate years-old grievances.
The strike actions aimed to pressure the ruling military council into dismissing top officials in the Postal Authority who were part of Mubarak’s entourage, as well as dismissing some external consultants.
In response, SCAF sent army soldiers to break a number of strikes, but also promised that it would take note of workers’ demands.
However, as months went by, Sharaf’s government dragged its feet on the issue of meeting postal workers’ wage demands.
Moreover, many postal workers did not consider the policies of Tariq El-Saadani, Sharaf’s choice for new director of the Authority, to represent a clean break with those of his predecessors.
Although El-Saadani agreed last May to a key demand, to permanently hire close to 6,000 temporary employees, he has not come through on many other issues.
For example, Abdel-Latif told Ahram Online that Sharaf’s new director “has not only maintained wasteful consultancy positions, but even kept on almost exactly the same roster of useless individuals.”
For years now, according to Abdel-Latif, postal workers have felt that they have created a massively successful operation that brings in billions to the government, without seeing any of the fruits of their labour.
In fact, the Egyptian government generates a considerable amount of cash from its Postal Authority.
The Authority not only uses post offices to deliver regular mail services to the public; it also runs savings accounts for millions of citizens and handles the distribution of pension cheques to millions of retirees.
“The Postal Authority is not only a solvent entity, it is actually quite profitable. Their savings accounts operation brings in LE62 billion annually, which the authority invests in banks,” Abdel-Latif told Ahram Online. “They can easily afford to improve the living standards of their hard working employees.”
Since the fall of Mubarak, thousands of postal workers have, as in the case of many other public sector employees, formed new, militant, independent unions to replace the old regime’s controlled, bureaucratic structures, and to help them fight for their social and economic needs.
“In Cairo, 3,000 employees out of approximately 16,000 officially joined the union, and we have many sympathizers who will join us soon,” said Abdel-Latif.
Abdel-Latif told Ahram Online that six such new unions have registered with the government and more are in the process of being formed. These unions are playing a key role in organising the strikes.
So far, SCAF and Sharaf’s cabinet have refused to cave in to workers’ demands.
In fact, over the past weekend, SCAF has tried to break the strike and open post offices in Ismailia by force, but the army failed because strikers managed to hold their ground.
Workers’ intransigence has finally forced the minister of transportation and communication, who oversees the Postal Authority, to call a meeting tomorrow with representatives of employees, to be held at the headquarters of the Trade Union Federation in Cairo to reach some common ground.
If tomorrow’s scheduled meeting fails to resolve issues that caused workers to strike, the Postal workers’ action might precipitate a serious crisis for SCAF and Sharaf.
On Thursday morning, the day after the scheduled meeting, huge numbers of retired Egyptians are planning to show up at post offices across the country to bring home their monthly retirement payment, as they always do on the eighth day of the month.
If the postal strike does not end by then, the workers and the ruling military council might be headed for a direct and serious confrontation.
For example, the government might try, as its record in other public sector strikes in recent months show, to pit the general public, most of whom are not wealthy and may rely heavily on the post office services, against the people who deliver those services.
That possibility did not seem to deter the union president.
“We do not want to inconvenience the public, but we have to fight for our families and the future, for everyone,” said Abdel-Latif.