Dispatches from a Labor Officer in Cairo

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, State Department (left) and Carol Pier, ILAB (right) present Peter Shea with 2012 Labor Diplomacy Award.

Peter Shea was there. He stood in the middle of a scene now familiar worldwide: the reveling crowds in Egypt’s Tahrir Square the night President Hosni Mubarak resigned. But he also witnessed less heralded, yet no less important, sights: a labor movement struggling, then taking root and now flourishing in spite of an uncertain transition.

As a labor officer at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Shea visits factories and farms where he meets with workers – including children – operating under sometimes shocking conditions.  

During one such visit to a farm in rural Upper Egypt, Shea recalls, “We saw a man, a kind of foreman, whipping women and children with a windshield wiper blade.”

The underappreciated story of Egypt’s 2011 revolution is the strength it derived from independent labor. The “April 6” Youth Movement that helped spark a nationwide revolt began with a protest of low wages at a textile plant. And when the revolution gained steam in February 2011, it was increasingly untenable for Mubarak to ignore nationwide strikes that reflected worker demands pent up over six decades of repression.

At the U.S. Department of Labor, we rely on diplomats like Shea to gather the information needed to conduct reporting and programs overseas.

In addition to reporting on breaking labor events, Shea advances U.S. policy by communicating with the government, unions, employers and workers. But just as vital are the relationships he helps build. And which contacts prove most pivotal can be anybody’s guess.  

Before the revolution, Shea sat down with Ahmed el Borai, a distinguished professor of law at Cairo University with expertise in collective bargaining issues. A few months later, El Borai was named Egypt’s Minister of Manpower. Two weeks after that, El Borai issued a historic declaration affirming complete freedom of association.

This declaration helped kick the labor ball forward. More than 400 new unions registered in a year and a half; there were none prior to the revolution.  Before 2011, strikes were illegal in Egypt, but about 100 to 200 a year happened anyway at great personal risk to workers. Now, workers are able to express their demands fully and freely.  Shea is currently working to press the government and trade unions to encode these freedoms in law.

For his work as the U.S. government’s eyes and ears on the ground, Shea recently received the 2012 Labor Diplomacy Award, which is jointly administered by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) and the U.S. Department of State. Each year, the Labor Diplomacy Award honors the best and the brightest, highlighting the important role labor officers play.

Tremendous progress has been made, but much has yet to be done. Shea notes that there is a “huge social friction between worker demands and the government’s capacity to deliver.” Workers are still learning how to collectively bargain, and legacy laws are still on the books and selectively used to prosecute workers.

But thanks to the exemplary work of labor officers like Shea, we have not only a finger on the pulse of worker rights issues worldwide, but also a hand in promoting them.

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