17 February, 2009

Notes on the pharmacists strike

The pharmacists strike seem to be the talk of the town today, as well as the main story in many newspapers. I took a walk in my area earlier today and found 6 out of 6 pharmacies closed, so the claim by Al-Akhbar that the strike failed in Cairo and Giza is clearly not true. As Zeinobia points out, this claim was not even supported by other state-controlled newspapers as Al-Ahram and al-Goumhouria.

As Zeinobia writes, this strike is not like most others in Egypt: "First of all the Syndication is insisting on its demands and the minister of health is backing them, describing the strike as a civilized one. This is a very rare statement from an official regarding a strike in Egypt."

It's true that this is rare - but at the same time, it's not surprising that the health minister would try and score political points by backing demands that has to do with decisions taken by the finance ministry. (The issue here is a new law that would impose higher taxes on the farmacists)

What really makes this strike different is this simple fact: strikes are usually about workers putting pressure on employers. In this case, however, big chains like Seif Pharmacies and Misr Pharmacies have decided to close their shops - "in solidarity with the union" according to notes posted on the doors of local branches. So it's clearly about employers and small shop-owners taking on the finance ministry. And while workers on strike hope to win their demands by causing economic losses for the employer, the pharmacists can never hope to do the same.

One of the pharmacists interviewed by Daily News estimated that the strike will reduce revenues from medicine sales by 12 million per day. This affects primarily the drug companies and the pharmacists themselves, and the state only indirectly, by reduced tax revenues. So the pharmacists only chance to win is by raising the political costs for the government, trying to create public support for their demands (or at least anger at the government as frustrated customers demand badly needed medicines and even more badly needed cosmetics), until some compromise is reached - or they are forced to open their stores in order to avoid bancruptcy.

The striking pharmacists are clearly not part of the Egyptian labour movement or trade union movement then. But this doesn't mean, of course, that their demands cannot be legitimate or that their campaign shouldn't be seen as a part of the general wave of political and social protests in Egypt during the last few years. It's another sign that more and more people from different segments of society are willing to openly challenge the policies of the government and fight for what they perceive as just demands.

Update: This confirms what I wrote above: "Health Minister Hatem el-Gabaly said he ordered all state-owned pharmacies — which are mostly part of state hospitals and clinics — to stay open 24 hours, to counter any effects of the private-sector strike." Doesn't this mean that if the strike continues, customers will turn to state owned pharmacies, increasing the revenues of the state while ruining the striking businesses? In the end, the lack of economic logic in this strike only strenghtes the impression that this is a desperate campaign, a result of the absence of any other means to influence the policies of the utterly authoritarian government.

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