Riding the wave: Political parties and workers’ rights

Leading up to the January 2011 revolution, labor played a major role in the organization and expression of dissent. The movement has continued to grow since, spilling into the private sector, while the number and size of labor actions have increased.

At the same time, electoral politics have changed the nature of how and why political hopefuls claim representation of different sections of society. The nexus between these two developments — politicians claiming representation and the workers’ movement — has taken an interesting shape.

Emergent political forces have sought to position themselves favorably with respect to labor, though it is unclear what their actual connection is to workers on the ground.

There have been two major methods by which parties and political actors attempt to insert themselves into the labor issue. The first is on the national policy level, exhibited by the Muslim Brotherhood through Presidential Decree No 97, which allows for some changes in the boards of directors of the official trade unions. According to the Brotherhood, this decree would lead to increased investment and ultimately benefit both workers and management.

The second technique takes place on the ground through involvement by party officials in strikes, negotiations and arbitration.

The desire of political parties to participate in the labor movement is no surprise given the rise of the movement. Its decentralization, spread to the private sector and consistent success at achieving salary and benefit increases has been impressive.

Where labor organization has been successful, it has begun to ingrain the demands of workers into investors’ calculus. On the other hand, the movement is still fairly non-threatening. Despite its successes, the labor movement has not spread throughout the country, meaning that a politician can successfully court management and ownership without taking a concrete position.

According to researcher and human rights activist, Amr Adly, party involvement in labor action is not connected to concern for the rights of laborers: “There’s this opportunistic use of labor issues for very short-term gains by political parties. I don’t believe there is any organic relationship between the independent labor unions and the political parties as they’re formed now.”

According to Adly, Decree No 97 is a good example of this. The Muslim Brotherhood is seeking a power-sharing alliance with members of the old regime. This decree, designed to install Brotherhood members in Egypt’s state-aligned trade union federation, is actually a way for the Brotherhood to court the “labor aristocracy” without connecting with the rank-and-file workers.

At the same time, parties have been positioning themselves at the sites of labor disputes in efforts to secure political presence and legitimacy. Of eight private sector firms I spoke to, each of them had experienced a similar pattern.

Strikes have increased since the revolution. Self-identified party members have been increasingly present and their actions can be described as tangential when it comes to negotiation and arbitration, and non-existent when it comes to actually inciting strikes.

One example of this type of tangential action follows a recent strike at Wadi Foods’ feedlot in Nubaria, which ended with a declaration by the Nour Party that the local party official had “convinced the CEO to accept the workers’ demands.”

According to a Wadi manager, Essam Behery, the negotiation process actually included a number of parties — management, factory labor leaders, the Ministry of Labor and local political parties.

Nader Adly Hamed from Saif Group, a Pakistani textile firm with operations in Egypt, noted there has been local party involvement in negotiations, but that it doesn’t seem to be solely for workers’ benefit. A better solution, according to Hamed, would be to “enhance [the law] for both employees and employers.”

It is not that party involvement has been wholly negative from the perspective of workers or management, or that meaningful representation would not help workers universalize some of the gains they’ve made. However, these parties seem to be operating alongside, rather than as a part of, the independent labor movement. Perhaps there is a lack of fit between the material concerns of workers and the ideological and representational concerns of politicians. Or maybe there is a limit to the risk that politicians are willing to take on by fighting for material gains.

According to a source from one of the nation’s largest agricultural firms — who preferred to remain anonymous — even when parties provoke strikes, their tactic is to “motivate or be a catalyst to strike,” rather than taking direct responsibility or leadership for labor action.

The fight for representation has remained largely ideological. As this conflict spills onto the streets of Cairo, the disconnect between party platforms and action can only alienate the average Egyptian citizen, which will make it difficult to achieve the consensus necessary for meaningful change.

Nicholas Oxenhorn is a researcher focusing on the political economy of agriculture in Egypt and a coordinator at Wadi Environmental Science Centre.

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