2011 § Leave a Comment
The first May day in post-revolutionary Egypt saw hundreds of thousands of people gather in Tahrir Square. The crowd asked for the new government to guarantee reforms that would provide workers with basic rights.
But Magdir, a 45 years-old worker for a Cairo construction company, did not rally in Tahrir. He spent his Mayday working with his colleagues, re-painting the facade of a building only few blocks away from the world-famous Square where demonstrators had gathered.
“There is nothing to do there,” Magdir told Bikya Masr while holding a blue rope in his right hand spattered with yellow paint. Magdir raises his head, peering at the paint basket hanging at the opposite end of the rope. There, his workmates Ahmed and Abdallah sink their rollers and attentively paint the facade of a nineteenth century downtown building.
Ahmed and Abdallah stand on the same wooden beam, leaned on by two motorbike tires, each of them hanging from a rope they previously fixed on the top of the building. The two swing together at roughly 20 meters from the floor, giving a brush to the facade every time their fluctuation takes them close enough to the building.
“Thank God we work six days a week,” continued Magdir, “and on Friday I stay at home, play Playstation or football with friends.”
Magdir used to be a migrant worker. He worked as a cook in Jordan, as a waiter in Syria and as a builder in Saudi Arabia. When he found wife in Egypt and planned to settle down, this job was the best he managed to get.
However, he regards this as a lucky catch somehow, as his and his colleagues’ daily salary range between LE60-80 daily ($10-15), exceeding the monthly LE400 ($68) set by Egypt’s current legislation as minimum wage.
This is another reason why they might not have joined Tahrir’s protesters. There, demonstrators called for the government to immediately raise minimum wages up to LE1,200 ($200).
Until October 2010, minimum wage in Egypt was set at LE35 monthly ($6). It was then raised just over the World Bank’s Moderate Poverty Threshold ($2 daily) following unprecedented protests.
But many look on with nostalgia at the earlier stand, as employees would openly negotiate salaries with their own employer. As the minimum wage was set at a higher rate, many ended up with earnings lower then they would expect before the reform.
Instead, Magdir’s concerns depend on another topic. “His father died two years ago,” says him pointing at his young apprentice Amr, “he fell from the beam. Gone.” Lacking alternatives, Amr took his father’s place in the company and is now learning from his colleagues how to swing on the beam.
“It takes an iron heart to get up there,” intervenes Mohammed, one of the company’s veteran. Mohammed has been going up on the beam for more than thirty years. He now enjoys the petty tasks reserved to an experienced assistant like him.
He does not know how and when, but Magdir considers a trade union the only way out from their unlucky position.
He and his colleagues think many steps forward have been done towards the creation of a safer working environment in the last years. Nonetheless, as a consequence of the complete lack of public subsidies and the dangerous working conditions, their job is often not worth doing.
Independent trade unions outside the management of state-led Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) were formally banned under former President Hosni Mubarak. After the February 11 collapse of the regime, the ETUF’s 54 year-long monopoly was interrupted by the creation of a range of new associations, covering all sorts of categories including those previously discriminated by the ETUF like farmers and fishermen.
Lack of coordination and know-how are not the only obstacles between workers like Magdir and trade unions.
The Cairo Land Center for Human Rights (LCHR) recently warned of an ongoing genocide in the Egyptian village of Musa, as remnants of the former regime deprived inhabitants of current water and food supplies, as they discovered farmers were planning to institute a trade union to cover their interests.
As the battle rages on on Tahrir’s international stage, and newly-formed trade unions endorse interests of industrial workers (see those in Shebeen al-Kom or Mahalla), those like Magdir have a much longer and tougher battle ahead of them.
Abdallah and Ahmed slowly reach the base of the building and finally hop off the beam. Abdallah says he does not fear his job, but hopes he will soon have enough money to give it up. He wants to buy a Toyota and work as a microbus driver.
this was from Bikya Masr, photos by David Chierchini © 2011-2012
2011 § Leave a Comment
Saturday’s Italian-Tunisian deal on immigration, worth $210 million, shows how popular unrest in the Middle East is failing to change international politics in the region. As the raging of war in Libya hits a main migratory route that brings hundreds of thousands Sub-Saharan and North African migrants heading to Europe every year, international institutions fail to achieve a concerted agreement to face this ongoing historical crisis.
The Italian island of Lampedusa, only a few hundreds kilometers from African coasts, has received almost 15,000 refugees between January-March 2011, almost four-fold the number of migrants landed throughout 2010. Even though Italy has repeatedly called for international intervention in the matter, the emergency rises as the European Union appears unwilling to discuss a shared solution. The lack of concerted planning allows Italy to find bilateral solutions that suit its government’s own purpose to get rid of migrants, failing on basic human rights procedures, and to pursue national (sometimes even personal) economic interests, enhancing illiberal and repressive policies on the opposite Mediterranean shore.
A part of Italy’s unilateral attempt to revive commercial and political ties with Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was the first statesman to agree upon a historical $5 billion compensation deal with former colony Libya in 2010. This was not calculated out of compassion. In exchange, Gaddafi agreed to spend part of the money to enforce Libya’s coastal police, in a bid to increase the number of ‘respingimenti’ (turning back) against those “illegal immigrants”, actually refugees fleeing from a ruthless dictatorship (now a war zone) and heading towards Italy’s southern coasts.
This highlights a main point of discussion: a fundamental human right like political asylum, sanctioned by Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is purposefully confused with the accusation of illegal immigration. The violation of the Article is therefore legitimized as part of a powerful political discourse that strengthens European xenophobic policies and re-enforce global inequalities. As the Italian-Libyan case shows, Gaddafi’s interests coincided almost perfectly with the xenophobic, separatist party Lega Nord. The power of these kinds of odd alliances has turned the Mediterranean Sea into barb-wired frontier to be enforced, in a bid to keep order at home at eyes closed in front of the most evil atrocities committed abroad. No European country seems available to re-discuss the terms of this approach.
But the picture is much wider. The war in Libya risks opening Pandora’s box of global inequalities, because the people fleeing Libya are not only Libyans. Daniele del Grande, author of “Fortress Europe”, the most reliable online source of information on cross-Mediterranean migrations, reports the state of fear ruling the lives of entire families of West African migrants in Benghazi. Locked up in their houses to escape from clashes of a revolution that is not theirs, or hiding from people chasing the mercenaries recruited by Gaddafi because of the similar color of their skin. The cruelest thing is to recognize that Sub-Saharan migrants are both among the causes of regional instability their first, most helpless victims.
Brave reporters like Del Grande show that what was known before as “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea), whose vital function was to connect the many parts of the multicultural Roman Empire long ago, has now become an extended graveyard, a wide water blanket that covers the hundreds of thousands of dead bodies belonging to those people who have failed in their last, hopeless travel. Del Grande writes in his blog, “this is the history our sons will study in their books, the story of thousands dying and being deported, while we pretended that nothing was happening.” Sunk into the deep, their bodies disappear without any news, and few journalistic reports are their anonymous tombstones.
As the EU appears more and more alienated from this reality, pressure towards a concerted solution should come from those European countries directly interested by this phenomenon. Unfortunately enough though, Italian separatist and racist party Lega Nord scored a winner in last Parliamentary Elections, obtaining 86 parliamentary seats and becoming the third most influential political party in the country, thanks to its propaganda against “African” Southern Italy. On the French side, Marin Le Pen, leader of the far-right wing party National Front and most accredited candidate for upcoming presidential elections, visited Lampedusa two weeks ago, expressing her solidarity with the local inhabitants. What is going to happen to the people in Libya during this war? What is going to happen to the thousands migrating form West Africa? We do not know. Italian and NATO General Fabio Mini declared on Sunday that a “balkanization” of Libya is the most probable solution after Gaddafi will be forced out of his thrown. Mini said, this solution will serve the interests of the Energy Companies working in Libya and help improve their share with less political and legal control.
Indeed, it is hard to believe that the two UN resolutions allowing military intervention in Libya are driven by humanitarian purposes. It is also hard to believe that UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon first concern is to “listen” to the voices of the people. Where were they aircraft when people were dying crossing the Mediterranean, jailed and killed by Gaddafi’s police in the Kufra Oasis or left to die from thirst in the middle of the desert?
“Egypt does not want a revenge but wants to take part to the world,” said Wael Ghonim, one of the young voices of the Egyptian Revolution. This demand is not only Egyptian, and rises from all over Africa. But who is listening?