Getting unions to work in Egypt

Rush hour in Cairo

Steve Chiotakis: Egypt's Prime Minister has joined a growing chorus wanting to delay elections in the country. The fear is there's not enough time for political parties to come together. Big unions played a key role in the ouster of the former Mubarak government. But the Egyptian labor movement could have trouble going forward.

Marketplace Economy 4.0 correspondent David Brancaccio has been reporting on ways the economy could serve more people better. Today he files this report from Cairo.


David Brancaccio: In Egypt, just crossing the street is an adventure. The country has one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities in the world and driving is downright dangerous. Ahmed Hassan Suleiman Ali would know.

Ahmed Hassan Suleiman Ali: I drive from Ismailia to Merg, I drive from Ismailia to Qantara. I drive everywhere.

In fact, Ali's job is to drive -- for 24 hours per shift at the wheel of a 15-passenger minivan owned by a private bus company. Ali does it to sustain his wife, daughter and baby boy. But who's looking out for his future? You'd think maybe his union. It's a holdover from the Mubarak regime, a union with close ties to the government, which Ali says is not serving members like him.

Ali: I pay for my union. I pay for taxes. I pay for insurance. I pay all what is required from me.

Yet if Ali gets into a wreck, he says he's on his own and he'll be the one paying all his medical bills. He's in Cairo today to let it be known that he needs the kind of union that makes sure there's health coverage.

At this conference in Cairo, labor leaders are celebrating Egypt's new independent unions. More than a dozen have sprung up since the revolution, thanks to a law passed by the transitional military government. One is for public transportation workers, like Ali the bus driver.

I spoke with its representative, Tamra Gandi.

Tamra Gandi speaking Arabic

Gandi's first priority? To get what he sees as the ineffective government-linked union dissolved, its assets handed over to his independent union. But for these unions to be effective, labor leaders say they still need a freer hand. The military government issued a law this spring banning -- get this -- strikes. Officials had warned that work stoppages could "lead to the deterioration of the nation's economy." It's an argument that resonates with some business leaders, but in no way with Ali, the bus driver.

In Cairo, I'm David Brancaccio for Marketplace.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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