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Egyptian pensioners organize union

Published Jul 31, 2011 11:04 PM

Shoukry Azer
WW photo: Joyce Wilcox

In addition to the mass protests in Egypt, another arena for demanding rights and fighting corruption has been Egypt’s independent trade union movement. This movement expressed its solidarity with the demonstrators, and added its clout to the struggle to bring down Hosni Mubarak five months ago.

Egypt’s independent trade unions joined together into a confederation on Jan. 30. Despite the outlawing of strikes by the ruling military regime in March, this union movement continues to grow. For example, while this reporter was in Cairo in June, the pilots of the national airline, Egypt Air, formed an independent union to fight for workers’ rights and also to target graft and corruption in the airline.

This reporter interviewed Shoukry Azer, a 74-year-old retired physician and a founder of the recently-created independent Union of Egyptian Pensioners. Its membership is Egyptians 60 years of age and older who receive government pensions. Azer has also fought against privatizing the social security and health insurance systems.

Azer explained that it was necessary to form the union because the Egyptian government “has taken 435 billion Egyptian pounds ($73 billion) from pensioners over the last 30 years.” Mubarak did this openly and blatantly, by “refusing to continue the Ministry of Pension,” Azer said, and by moving the pension money into the treasury of the Ministry of Finance. Azer called this move “unconstitutional.” The end result is that Egyptian pensioners are being short-changed by $73 billion of much-needed money.

A person used to die in Egypt before they retired at 60 years or soon after. But that is no longer the case. Life expectancy is now over 72 years. In Egypt, the elderly are the fastest growing segment of the population, according to Egypt Today. (Nov. 16, 2009) In 1986, 5 percent of Egyptians were age 60 and older. In 2015 they’ll make up 11 percent of the population and in 2050, over one-fifth.

Additionally, as of June 2008, 84 percent of all seniors 60 years and older had dependents, usually supporting between two and four people, including themselves, according to Egypt Today. Many of these dependents are unemployed adult children. For these people, the pension system, which pays retirees 60 to 600 Egyptian pounds or LE ($10 to $100) a month, is their only source of funds.

This reliance of many on senior parents as their only source of support is a direct result of neo-liberal economic policies imposed on Egypt by the Wall Street banks. When the International Monetary Fund and World Bank’s “structural adjustment” of the Egyptian economy began in 1991, 20 percent of the population was living on less than $2 a day (inflation-adjusted); today, that figure is 44 percent, according to the World Bank.

Mubarak “took the money of the pensions-of 27 million people working in the public and private sector and paying into a pension. If everyone has three relatives to support, you can see what a significant number of people this is,” said Azer. “These people were cheated out of their pension money. They should get their money from the government pension fund, collected from them while they were younger.”

Azer’s union has two demands: They want their pension money back and they want the Ministry of Pension restored. The union, only a few months old, already has 400 members in Cairo and 200 in Upper Egypt, according to Azer. They also have attorneys pursuing their rights.

Azer explained, “Out of 4 million Egyptians over the age of 60 eligible for pensions, almost none get more than LE 300 ($50), and 1.35 million get less than LE 150 ($25), which means they take less than $1 per day, below the poverty line.”

To collect that tiny but vitally needed $25 per month, Egyptians aged 60 and above must stand in line for hours, often at more than one office.

Chediac spoke at the founding meeting of the Egyptian Socialist Party in Cairo June 18.