Labor law stalled as independent unions struggle for representation

Due to its failure to issue a new law guaranteeing trade union liberties, the Egyptian state may again be on its way to being “blacklisted” by the International Labor Organization (ILO). If the long-anticipated Trade Union Liberties Law is not issued by September, then Egypt may return to being “named and shamed” as a state which violates the ILO's basic trade union rights. This comes at a time when independent and state-controlled unions continue to struggle among themselves over the representation of Egypt's trade union movement — both at home and abroad.

Although the Egyptian State has been a member of the ILO since 1936 and has ratified 63 of its conventions, it has, more often than not, failed to implement the provisions of these conventions. Despite the fact that Egypt voluntarily ratified Conventions No. 87 & 98 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize and the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining, respectively) in the 1950s it has not enforced these conventions, nor brought its domestic legislation in line with the provision of these international conventions.

According to Egypt's extant legislation, Trade Union Law 35/1976, unions are legally confined to operate under a monopolistic, state-controlled union.

Moreover, the recent dissolution of the ‘Revolutionary Parliament’ raises further questions regarding the future status of trade union legislation, along with other labor regulations. Beyond trade union liberties, the Egyptian state has been criticized for failing to establish a new national minimum wage, for criminalizing the right to strike and for failing to address the rampant problem of child labor, among other problems.

Since the onset of the 25 January revolution there had been high hopes — both domestically and internationally — that Egypt's interim authorities would introduce legal reforms and liberate trade unions from the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) which has monopolized the national trade union movement since 1954. These hopes have repeatedly been shattered.

In August 2011, a draft law for trade union liberties was prepared by Egypt’s former Manpower Minister Ahmed al-Borai, together with representatives of trade unions, businessmen, and political groups, and submitted to the ruling military junta for approval.

“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces shelved the draft law” for nearly six months until the new Parliament was elected and inaugurated, said Kamal Abu Eita, president of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU).

Abu Eita, who was also an elected MP in Parliament added, “Then the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Parliament shelved this draft for several more months [until March of this year], after which the Brotherhood prepared a new draft law among themselves, without referral to any other MPs and without discussion with the EFITU.”

Abu Eita went on to say, “Both the SCAF and the Brotherhood have proven that they are against the Trade Union Liberties Law.” The independent union organizer shrugged his shoulders as he continued, “Now nobody knows when the next Parliament is to be elected; we can’t predict who’ll win these elections, and therefore we cannot predict what will become of this draft law which has been gathering dust for nearly a year now.”

Ali Fattouh, a strike-leader and organizer of the Independent Union of Public Transport Authority (PTA) Employees, expressed his reservations regarding Parliament's overall performance since it was sworn in January of this year. Yet, he emphasized, “The main culprits behind the obstruction of labor legislation and workers' rights are the SCAF, the interim Cabinet, the ETUF, and other remnants of the Mubarak regime.”

But Fattouh disagreed with Abu Eita about the performance of the Brotherhood: “The Muslim Brotherhood MPs were standing with us in our demands to have the PTA administratively merged with the Transportation Ministry.”

“The parliamentary Transportation Committee had scheduled their session on 19 June to authorize the PTA’s merger with the ministry,” Fattouh added.  

The PTA labor activist expressed his dismay regarding the dissolution of Parliament on 14 June, just days ahead of their anticipated parliamentary session. Fattouh went on to say, “Now we have no idea as to when this decision will now be issued, if it will be issued at all.”

The bus driver added that “the long-anticipated Trade Union Liberties Law is the most important piece of legislation for Egypt's workers at the moment. It is vital for the legal establishment of independent trade unions, which are capable of defending workers' rights. If we have such legally recognized independent unions then we would not need to resort to striking for our rights. Yet this law has also been put on hold, indefinitely.”

“We PTA workers refuse the SCAF's intervention in civilian political affairs,” Fattouh concluded.

According to Abu Eita, “We shall continue to apply pressure on the SCAF and the other authorities which now claim legislative powers to issue the Trade Union Liberties Law.” Abu Eita pointed to Egypt’s international obligations to recognize independent unions in light of ILO Conventions 87 and 98, as well as other international human rights agreements to which Egypt is party. 

“We did not wait for Mubarak’s approval, or the approval of his regime, to establish our independent unions. And we will not wait for his successors to authorize such unions” said Abu Eita. “We will continue to stand up against Egypt’s tyrants.”

However, Abu Eita did concede that “the absence of a law protecting trade union liberties will indeed affect the growth and perceived legitimacy of the independent trade union movement in Egypt. The ruling authorities seek to delegitimize us and to marginalize us, yet we will continue to struggle to reclaim our natural rights.”

Abu Eita is angry that the ETUF was invited by Manpower Minister Refaat Hassan, Borai’s replacement, to represent Egypt at the ILO conference in Geneva this year.  “Dozens of ETUF members were invited to represent Egypt at the ILO conference (from 3 May 3 through 14 June),” he said, “while only two members of the EFITU were invited. It is on this basis that we refused to attend the conference.”

The ETUF, dating back to the mid-1950s, has an estimated membership of 4 million workers while the quickly growing membership of the EFITU, which was established on 30 January 2011, is now estimated at some 2.5 million.  

Abu Eita explained that only four members of EFITU were invited to attend the ILO conference last year, while over 36 members of the ETUF were invited. The independent labor organizer produced a document, dated 27 May 2012, signed by the new Manpower Minister declaring that the ETUF would preside over the Egyptian delegation to the ILO this year, but hereafter the two federations would alternate year by year.

The board of the state-controlled ETUF was dissolved by ministerial decree in August 2011, and a caretaker administration has been running its affairs since then. ETUF elections were scheduled to take place during October/November 2011, yet were postponed due to parliamentary elections. The ETUF elections have again been postponed owing to the presidential election. Meanwhile, the EFITU conducted its first nationwide elections in February 2012.

According to Talal Shokr, vice president of the Independent Pensioners Federation, “there was a small delegation of around 10 independent unionists, labor journalists, and labor activists who attended the ILO conference in Geneva this year. Yet Egypt’s delegations remain dominated by the state-controlled federation.

“But more important than distant conferences taking place in Europe, are efforts on the ground in Egypt to liberate workers' from the control of the ETUF and businessmen,” added Shokr.

Predating the United Nations, the ILO was established in 1919, after the Russian Revolution and World War I. The ILO is not an exclusively labor-based organization; but is based on the involvement of governments, employers and unions. The spokesperson of the ILO’s regional bureau in Cairo was not available for comment.

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