The Middle East @ Work

Egypt’s newfound labor movement

Scott Jagow Mar 6, 2008


SCOTT JAGOW: I’m outside a Cairo shopping mall. I was about to buy a scarf, but then realized it was made in India. Then, I found a shop only selling clothes made in Egypt.

Textiles are a huge employer in this country.
But workers have started protesting their wages.
Last year, thousands of employees at a state-owned plant went on strike. And the government met their demands — very unusual.

Joel Beinin teaches Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo. I asked him why things were different this time.

JOEL BEININ: The economic leaders of the current regime believe they need to attract more foreign direct investment, and they need to prove that Egypt is a stable labor market in order to do that, so the best way to accomplish this is to buy-off the workers when they make demands, and because the price of oil has been high, the government has money.

JAGOW: Professor, what has been the role of women in this newfound labor movement?

BEININ: In the first strike that occurred, it was actually the women who began the strike. There was a lot of discontent over workers not receiving an annual bonus at the rate that had been promised them by the government, but 3,000 women walked off the job and started marching around the compound of the complex and chanting “Here are the women. Where are the men?” This group of women embarrassed the men into beginning the strike, and that strike was quite successful.

JAGOW: Any idea where that empowerment came from?

BEININ: It comes from having no choice. Women typically make much lower wages than men, and so women are having to support their children, sometimes three, four, five children, on a wage which typically the base pay will be about $80 a month, and you can roughly double it with all of the various fringe benefits that they get, but $160 a month will not do it in Egypt anymore.

JAGOW: Professor, how do you think this recent spate of protests will change labor dynamics in Egypt, maybe for good?

BEININ: I think it’s unclear. The basic wage of textile workers in Egypt is now about half of Egypt’s major competitors in the Mediterranean basin, so it’s still a viable proposition for say Turkish industrialists, to locate a textile factory here. In the long run, nobody can compete with China, because even though Egyptian wages are half of Turkish wages, Chinese wages are half of Egyptian wages, so in the long run, China will win this game, so where we are at now is tens of thousands, and perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of workers have already, and will, lose their jobs, along with the massive unemployment of recent university graduates, and this is a socially and potentially politically explosive situation here.

JAGOW: Professor Joel Beinin, he’s the director of Middle East studies at American University in Cairo, thanks for joining us.

BEININ: You’re most welcome.

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