15 July, 2009

Reuters take on the strike wave

Alistair Sharp reports on the strike wave in Egypt for Reuters, drawing this conclusion: "Striking Egyptian workers are unlikely to escalate demands for better conditions into a political challenge to the government, but stoppages will make state assets less attractive to investors." Some comments are in place.

Socialist journalist Hossam al-Hamalawy and Mahalla union activist Gihad Taman are both quoted in support of the idea that workers are not influenced or controlled by any opposition groups. But I'm not sure they would agree with the more far-reaching conclusion that workers won't "escalate demands" into a "political challenge"...

First of all, the fact that workers dismiss the currently existing opposition movements and political parties doesn't mean they will always stay out of the political sphere. Ironically, Gihad Taman who was interviewed in this article, happens to be a strong supporter of the idea of an independent worker's party. (Update: For Hossams view on this issue, see this post from 2007 that takes on the view that Egypt's strikers doesn't care about politics)

Secondly, strikes and sit-ins always constitute a political challenge of some sort in an authoritarian state even when workers don't chant "down with Mubarak." If the tolerance of industrial action has increased slightly in recent years it is only because workers fought and won this right by challenging a ban that was previously upheld with force (and still is in many cases). The state-controlled textile worker's union didn't suddenly call for a strike in Tanta because they have the legal right to do so (they always had) but because they and the government is desperate to control and contain the workers' demands, directing them away from dangerous ideas like re-nationalization of privatized factories. Such demands - while on the surface dealing only with economic policies - would amount to a serious political challenge to a regime with privatization and economic liberalization as primary ideology. 

The article also contains the obligatory analysis by liberal economic analysts, which in this case does contain some truth: Of course the strikes will reduce the appeal of state-owned assets to foreign investors. This is another reason why they constitute a political threat. We are talking about a challenge against the heart of the government's strategy of economic development: attracting foreign investment by selling out state assets (this is why much of the numbers and statistics on FDI in Egypt is dubious - it's not about creating something new but taking over already existing plants, it's not about creating employment but more often about mass layoffs - when it's not simply about buying land in the desert or along the coast to build luxury villa compounds of course).

I think this article would also have benefited from a little more research on the economic circumstances of the workers. The only number that is presented is the claim by a spokesman of Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla that the average annual salary of workers there increased to 15,000 pounds in 2007-2008 compared to 8,500 pound five years earlier. Even if the numbers are correct (which can't be taken for granted given the tendency of some officials to lie journalists straight in the face since they know that most of them won't check the numbers) it's the real wages, with inflation taken into account, that matter for the workers. Even more important in this case is the distribution of the salaries. How big was the raise for this company spokesman during this period, compared to shop-floor workers, for example? Does it matter that the average salary is 15,000 if a typical worker makes half that sum a year, while top managers make that sum every month?

1 comment:

  1. Per, thanks that is a good analysis. I am all for driving out investors who are interested in sweat shops and cheap (slave) labour.