By Heba Fahmy
CAIRO: Thousands of protesters gathered Sunday in Tahrir Square to celebrate Labor Day and highlight the rights of Egyptian workers.
Protesters demanded official recognition of independent unions that exist parallel to the official union to serve their interests. They condemned the privatization of the public sector, which they claim left millions of Egyptian workers jobless, and called for the return of these companies to the government.
Protesters, which grew in number by mid-day, also demanded increasing the minimum wage to LE 1,200.
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf did not attend an army-sponsored Labor Day celebration organized by the official General Federation of Trade Unions, opting instead to issue a statement aired on national television.
The official celebration in Salam City was the first since a youth-led popular revolt ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, who annually used Labor Day to appease workers with insignificant raises, while his government consistently failed to meet demands for a fair minimum wage.
In Tahrir, Aly El-Badry, head of the Egyptian Independent Trade Unions Federation (EITUF), said workers were forced to leave Egypt and work abroad because of the lack of opportunities and appreciation in their own country.
“We want our workers to come back to Egypt and be compensated for their work and we want the increase in wages to match price hikes,” El-Badry told Daily News Egypt.
Mohamed Ouf, member of the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution told DNE, “The official union was full of corruption under the former regime and sold all of Egypt’s public sector and played a negative role in protecting workers’ rights.”
“We want an independent union that will serve the workers, protect their rights and retrieve the privatized companies of Egypt,” Ouf added.
Protesters sang national songs and recited poetry describing the tough working conditions as a result of the policies of the former regime.
“I was forced to retire early last year and I was thrown in the street,” Mahmoud Metwally Aly, 51 told DNE, “I get a LE 345 pension and I have seven children. How am I supposed to survive.”
Gamal Osman, former worker in a Tanta linen factory, demanded that the labor laws be amended to serve workers instead of give managers the right to fire them.
“It takes workers over two years to get compensation for arbitrary dismissal,” Osman said.
Ragab Al-Sheimy, a worker in Ghazl Shebine area in Qaliubiya, said factories in his area were dominated by Indian workers and managers while Egyptian workers suffered from the corruption of managers.
Meanwhile, the official celebration which took place earlier in the day, was attended by Minister of Manpower Ahmed El-Borai, Petroleum Minister Abdallah Ghorab, Minister of Industry and Foreign Trade Samir Al-Sayyad and head of the Labor Union Ismail Fahmi.
In a statement, Sharaf apologized for not attending the event and said that the January 25 Revolution called for three basic principles: “freedom, dignity and social justice.”
He added that these were the same principles that guided Egypt towards a fair economy and equality between all Egyptians today.
Sharaf said that the people and the government need to work together to move towards a democratic system that is based on transparency and fighting corruption; a system that gives all people the opportunity to express their demands in an organized manner that guarantees the government’s constructive response.
He vowed to reform the wages system, improve the living standards of Egyptians, guarantee the independence and freedom of trade unions and launch a program to encourage small and medium enterprises as well as assign a small Egyptian bank to finance these businesses.
Labor Union Chief Fahmi paid tribute to the martyrs and the youth who spearheaded the revolution on Jan. 25 and changed the future of Egypt.
The celebration honored the families of these martyrs, which, according to an official report by a fact-finding mission are 846 who died in violent clashes with security forces and demonstrators during peaceful protests in the early days of the uprising.
The fathers of the martyrs were allowed to speak at the podium.
One of them demanded that the Minister of Industry provide his other son with a job and free housing.
“The martyrs are the masters of this country,” he said, chanting “glory to the martyrs” and “long live Egypt,” while the audience joined in.
He referred to Mubarak as “the murderer” and cursed him and his clique.
Another father asked government officials have mercy on the people and give workers their rights.
“The sons of the [rich, influential] are not subjected to the injustice we are subjected to,” he said, at which the fathers were quietly asked to leave the podium, in an event that was being aired live.