Wednesday, March 16, 2005

On strikes and layoffs

I was reading a couple of articles in last week's AlAhram Weekly about the Egyptian workers going on strike in a number of factories. It made me think again about my previous post where I expressed my sadness for the state of the Egyptian worker, and claimed that its illegal for Egyptian workers to go on strike. Issandr the Arabist just pointed to another related article by Stanford Professor Joel Beinin.

It seems that I wasn't up-to-date with the new labor law (although it affects me directly). Apparently, it has become legal now for the Egyptian workers to go on strike (why am I not on strike yet!), albeit under very strict conditions. Nader Fergany, founder and director of Almishkat research center, has published a report assessing the new (then proposed) labor law. Some interesting caveats there, worth looking at.

Ofcourse the government enacted the new law to suit their new liberal economic strategies, whereby clauses ensuring that a worker is hired for life, can never be fired, and cannot go on strike are becoming very rigid and unsuitable in a desired dynamic market economy.

So basically, workers in a number of factories have been on strike for a while now because their factories are being privatized, and they know that the first action the new private investor will take, is lay them off.

I can understand both sides of the story. Workers definetely don't want to be laid off (who does), especially after so many years of working there, and especially in our culture, where you stick in one place, for life, and considering that there aren't really abundance of jobs in the Egyptian market.

On the other hand, it really doesn't make any sense to have the government own and operate companies and factories for consumer goods and the like. Nasser constructd and created some great new industries, but he really did a disservice to the country by nationalizing all those well performing companies suffocating the healthy business environment that was in place. It is about time to allow for and encourage real innovation, entrepreneurship, and productivity to flourish through the people, not through our foster parents (the government). Unfortunately, the government is just letting go of everything without establishing the proper framework to ensure a healthy business environment. And so, we're all learning the hard way.

I think there's nothing wrong with layoffs as long as they're warranted, and as long as there's a safety net that protects those hard workers who find themselves suddenly incomeless in a very tough environment with no proper social services provided by the government.

I keep thinking that companies are really mean, they hire like crazy as if there's no tomorrow during the good times, and when things get bumpy, the first thing they think of is to layoff people. So why did you hire so many resources in the first place if you can't have a good return from them, and they'll be working on silly non-profitable projects? But when I think more about this, I actually think its better to hire people, even if not with very long term vision and ensured stability, and then lay them off when absolutely necessary (I would stress on absolutely), is better than not hiring them at all. I would personally rather get hired, work on interesting projects for a while, learn and gain experience, and then get fired, than never get hired, and never getting that experience that would help me get another job.

Now, abit unrelated, but I need to comment about the main theme of Beinin's article (the reason for him mentioning those strikes), which is how such "unprecedented" popular social movements will cause major political changes in Egypt.

I think the social opposition movements against Sadat were far stronger than they are now against Mubarak. Riots in the streets for his economic policy, which he called "the uprising of the thieves", very highly ranked dissidents (from within the regime) whom were extremely vocal about their opposition to his policies, Saad ElShazly Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces in the 1973 war, and Ibrahim Kamel, Egypt's Foreign Minister who resigned during the Camp David Accords, as well as Ahmed Fouad Negm and Sheikh Imam who gathered students (among others) around them singing Negm's extremely harsh critical poems of Sadat's persona are vivid examples. Then there were all the Arabs turning against Sadat and boycotting Egypt. Well true, all that resulted in him getting shot dead, and Egypt did get a new president. But how did Egypt change, I ask? I questioned before (and here) whether just toppling the President would really make any positive change in our society. And I guarantee that the answer is No.

I really sound like one of the pro-regime newspapers, don't I! Hosni and company are a bunch of corrupt thugs, don't get me wrong. But those few social unrests and criticisms, even when resulting in replacing the president aren't going to lead to the change desired.


Hellme said...

Civil disobedience is a touchy subject because you never can actually make up your mind on where the 'truth' is.

Now in this case, the workers aren't striking for higher pay or benefits, they are striking against a concept - a concept that the rest of the world has pretty much applied successfuly, and we're only playing catchup. I sympathise fully with the workers' demands, and I understand the repurcussions of an unmanaged privatisation program, but I side fully with the government (so you aren't alone in your pro-gov stance).

In principle, I do not think that the primary role of gov. is to provide employment. It does however, have a duty to provide mechanisms and tools for effective retraining, which is something most people in Egypt think is insane, when in actual fact, it can be very beneficial for the economy. Most people think that if they lose their job as worker no. 4342345 in some speciality looming plant, they can't possibly retrain to run a different machine.

I think the gov should provide assurances to workers that the privatisation process is being managed, but it shouldn't succumb to them.

Hellme said...

...If indeed the privatisation program is being managed (which isn't the case, sadly).

Mohamed said...

Yes, exactly my point. But I wouldn't call it really a pro-gov stance.