High council member speaks on minimum wage

The Court of Administrative Justice’s recent ruling requiring the government to set a minimum wage for Egypt’s workers has raised many questions and caused a great deal of controversy, even as the ruling is intended to offset the effects of inflation and high living costs.

In light of these recent developments, Al-Masry Al-Youm met with Safwat el-Nahhas, president of the Central Agency for Organization and Management and chairman of the Complaints Committee for the High Council of Wages, to get his thoughts on growing public concern over the minimum wage.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: To begin with, do you feel there is an urgent need to set minimum and maximum limits for wages? Is this idea just?

Safwat el-Nahhas: Yes, this is absolutely a just idea.

Al-Masry: What will determine the minimum wage?

El-Nahhas: The minimum wage will have to be higher than the country’s poverty line, which for us approximately LE180 per month, and lower than half of the average wage in our society, which is about LE900 per month. It will should also offer an incentive for economic growth, because if we set an unreasonably high minimum wage it will raise the prices of commodities and services, in addition to the cost of living. This will, in turn, make the minimum wage inadequate.

Al-Masry: In your estimation, what should be the minimum wage for Egypt?

El-Nahhas: The minimum wage is adjusted from time to time, meaning every one to five years. The adjustment is made according to the published rate of inflation. For example, the minimum monthly wage rose from LE35 in 1987 to LE98 in 2005, a 180 percent increase.

Al-Masry: What about the ruling issued by the Court of Administrative Justice that obligated the government to increase the minimum wage for all governmental employees in Egypt to offset the effects of rising prices?

El-Nahhas: The National Council for Wages has formed a commission to study the possibility raising the minimum wage to LE450 or to LE500 per month, which is a sum quite sufficient for someone entering the workforce without training or even the most basic levels of education.

Al-Masry: And what about the formation of the National Council for Wages and its role?

El-Nahhas: The council meets regularly, with the ministers of planning, local development, manpower and immigration, finance, industry and trade and investment. I also participate by heading the Complaints Committee. The chairman of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, the chairman of the National Council for Women, various business associations and representatives of the General Federation of Trade Unions of Egypt also participate.

Al-Masry: What about the mission of the council? Are its decisions binding both for the private and public sectors?

El-Nahhas: The council’s decisions are binding, especially since there are representatives from every sector and because its decisions are national. The council has defined missions such as setting the minimum wage at the national level and defining the structure of wages for various professions and sectors. It also sets a minimum level for annual and periodic raises, such that annual raises are no less than seven percent of the basic wage, and looks into requests presented by establishments that are unable to afford the raises. It must respond to such requests within 20 days of receiving them.

Al-Masry: Lately workers’ strikes and protests have been spreading. How do you view this, given that the High Council of Wages is charged with solving workers’ problems in Egypt?

El-Nahhas: First of all, I should clarify that most of the protesters and those on strike are not under the authority of the administrative apparatus of the state. Second, I would say anyone seeking to ensure that their rights are respected that strikes are not the appropriate method to secure their rights.

Al-Masry: Then what about the strikers and protesters who are state employees?

El-Nahhas: Most of the demonstrators are protesting low wages. They are mostly state employees working in "Sector Six projects" that are hired on temporary contracts, and workers hired for administrative work during the financial year. Similarly, there are seasonal workers whose work is tied to specific periods of the year. Due to social pressures that push us to retain this section of the labor force despite the fact that the work they were commissioned for might be finished, we are forced to keep them on our payroll doing extremely simple sorts of work.

Al-Masry: But aren’t there workers who have been employed for ten years or more?

El-Nahhas: I admit that there is a problem, and that the matter needs a comprehensive review. But due to a lack of job opportunities, the government responds to social pressures and is forced to pay the same salaries to employees year after year.

Al-Masry: How long will this charade continue?

El-Nahhas: It isn’t a charade. Salaries are commensurate with the simple nature of the work being performed. It is expected that the budget for salaries will reach LE90 million for the coming year, whereas for fiscal year 2004/05, the budget for salaries was approximately LE42 million.

Al-Masry: What about the low salaries of most state employees, while others are seeing large increases?

El-Nahhas: Government salaries are fixed and apply to all administrative workers of the state. However, there are various incentives that differ from one employee to another according to the government sector in which they work. In general, the things you hear about salaries in the millions are just rumors without a grain of truth. Every salary is commensurate with the nature of work being performed. Perhaps my own salary is the best proof of this point. I receive LE3000 per month, and when I was the secretary general of the People’s Assembly, my salary was only LE2500. In general, we take corrective measures every so often to close the gaps between salaries of government employees.

Al-Masry: Will the High Council on Wages hold an emergency session over the course of the next month to set a minimum wage for Egypt?

El-Nahhas: It’s not that easy. If the council decides to raise the minimum wage, this requires a law from the People’s Assembly. So we take our proposals to the prime minister, which are then sent to the People’s Assembly to be turned into law.

Translated from the Arabic Edition.

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