CAIRO: The Egyptian government has set a new record in its embarrassing list of overdue decisions: seven years to announce a new minimum wage, which as it turns out, is nothing new.
On Oct. 28, 2010 the National Wages Council (NWC), which was set up seven years ago in 2003 for the express purpose of setting a minimum wage, finally set the amount at LE 400. The twist here is that according to Safwat El Nahhas, the NWC’s head of the complaints committee and president of the Central Agency for Organization and Administration, the new decision will have no impact on the income of level 6 state administrative employees — the proverbial limited income bracket which the government tries so hard to please — which already earn LE 492 per month.
The very same Nahhas was quoted in a previous article that ran in Daily News Egypt as saying that the government of Egypt pays around LE 400 a month to the lowest level employees, 18-year-olds who have no experience and who do not support families.
Why it took seven years for the NWC to come up with a figure that will have zero impact on the livelihood of the most underprivileged of state employees will remain forever an enigma. It’s no consolation that the official decision overturns the previous national minimum wage of LE 84 set in the last century, in 1984.
Over the past few years activists spearheaded by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, the center that had filed the wage case against the government, have pushed for setting a minimum wage with a study by Ahmed El-Naggar, an economist at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, proposing LE 1,200 based on conservative estimates of the ability of government workers to acquire basic living space, nutrition, transportation and health services, a minimum of LE 300 for renting a flat in the Mubarak Youth Housing project and a minimum of LE 300 for food, according to an article previously published by Daily News Egypt.
While that sum was naturally contested by employers and the government because of the huge burden such a decision would place on the national budget, which as it is suffers from exorbitant subsidies, a report published by the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies (ECES), titled “Reforming the Pay System for Government Employees in Egypt,” proposed that the minimum wage for government employees should be a more reasonable LE 733.2 per month, a suggestion that was clearly ignored.
The authors of the report used this proposed salary to calculate a new wage scale for government employees with an acceptable difference between the highest paid government officials and the lowest paid worker, which according to international standards should not be more than 10 fold. This is certainly not the case in Egypt.
What is worrying is that under the recent decision, individual sectors will be free to set the maximum wage based on negotiations between workers’ representatives and employers, even though bridging the gap between the minimum and maximum wage is perhaps the only way to fund any decent minimum wage requirement.
The humiliating LE 400 proposal once again proves the government’s bias to big business and its complete dissociation from the reality of the daily struggles faced by the simple Egyptian citizen who is not only shackled by a complete monopoly over his political and civil rights, but also now eats according to the government’s will.
With rising inflation and an unprecedented hike in food prices, LE 400 doesn’t go a long way. A kilo of tomatoes now costs LE 10, a kilo of sugar went up to LE 6 and a bottle of cooking oil reached LE 11, not to mention meat and poultry which have become an unattainable luxury to the majority of the population. A small family of four can barely survive on LE 1,200 choosing to go without any extras and making sure no one gets sick so as not to resort to the government’s supposedly “free” healthcare.
Egyptians, whether or not they will be affected by this mortifying decision, must do everything in their power to have it revoked. The regime must recognize that the level of need and poverty in this country are its worst nightmare and that its failure to guarantee the basic requirements of a decent living will ultimately lead to its downfall, not the farcical elections that it spends millions to secure and rig.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.