February 10, 2011 / 5:08 PM / 9 years ago

Labour strikes pile pressure on Egypt government

* Protests emboldened workers to press demands

* Sit-ins reported in southern Egypt

* Strike-hit sectors include transport, food, electricity

By Alexander Dziadosz and Marwa Awad

CAIRO, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Thousands of Egyptian workers staged strikes, sit-ins and protests over pay and conditions on Thursday, piling pressure on President Hosni Mubarak’s government on a day when he looked likely to step down.

So far the labour unrest appears to have an element of opportunism, with workers pressing their demands at a time when the government is already preoccupied by anti-Mubarak protests.

But more than two weeks of anti-government protests have emboldened Egyptian workers to press for long-standing demands.

“This could be the second wave of this revolution. And definitely it creates a new reality that any future government has to deal with,” Gamal Soltan of the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies said.

Pro-democracy activists hoping to forge links with disgruntled workers said they were forming committees whose aim was to organise strikes, marches and peaceful takeovers of state buildings without provoking violent reprisals from authorities.

“We need to move fast and hold onto the gains we have made so far,” activist Yahya Metwaly said in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, epicentre of the protests.

The latest strikes have hit companies and government agencies involved in bus transport, railways, food production, textiles, electricity, oil and other sectors.

Several dozen tunnel workers blocked the entrance to the Saleh Salem tunnel, a major traffic conduit in central Cairo, around midday, waving signs demanding better contracts.

Up to 3,000 workers of a state oil and gas firm in the northern port city of Alexandria also went on strike over pay and conditions. State-owned newspaper al-Ahram said a lawyers union had launched protests in Cairo on Wednesday.

Employees of the mostly state-owned landline monopoly Telecom Egypt (ETEL.CA) have also demonstrated.

About 150 temporary employees at Cairo airport demanded fixed contracts and better working conditions.

GOVERNMENT CONCESSIONS

State television quoted the finance minister as saying anyone who had worked on a temporary contract for three years would be hired permanently, and anyone on a contract of less than three months would get renewable one-year contracts.

In a sign the strikes were spreading to parts of Egypt that had been relatively quiet, Al Jazeera television reported that workers in the southern cities of Sohag and Assiut had staged sit-ins at pharmaceutical, gas and electricity firms.

Soltan said a government pledge this week to increase some state wages by 15 percent seemed to have placated few workers, and may have even encouraged some to press for more concessions.

But it is unclear whether Egypt’s relatively scattered and dispersed unions and employees can or will transform specific economic demands into a unified call for political action.

“The workers have raised demands. They have not mentioned the word ‘revolution’, but there are emerging parallels and you cannot separate their mode of action from the rest of the country,” Hossam Hamalawy, an activist familiar with labour movements, said.

Rabab el-Mahdi, a political science professor and one of the organisers of the “committees to defend the revolution”, said civil disobedience could gradually paralyse the country.

“We are already seeing demonstrations across the country and occupation of state buildings and there are plans to hold temporary strikes,” she said, adding that the committees drew largely on professional syndicates and labour unions. (Editing by Alistair Lyon and Philippa Fletcher)

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