Whatever happened to Egypt’s independent unions?
Independent unions strike outside ETUF in 2011

Independent labor unions flourished across Egypt with the popular uprising of 2011, but this growth translated neither into unity nor strength, and these independent associations appear to have withered away since the military-led regime change in July 2013.

State-controlled trade union federations are presently attempting to dissolve these independent associations, which have never been formally recognized by the government. Members also face punitive measures from their employers, political polarization within their own ranks, organizational schisms and a lack of resources.

These factors threaten the viability and utility of independent unions as agents of labor reform. Meanwhile, Ministry of Manpower politics also cast a shadow on these independent associations, with some independent unionists claiming the ministry is striving to marginalize them.

The two chief federations for such unions emerged in the form of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), which was established on January 30, 2011, and the Egyptian Democratic Labor Confederation (EDLC), established on April 24, 2013. These two federations have not succeeded in uniting their ranks.

Moreover, a host of smaller independent federations have since been established outside the realm of both the EFITU and EDLC, several of which broke off from these two larger federations.

Hoda Kamel, a former EFITU board member, explains there are a total of six labor union federations in Egypt, and “of these, the independent federations are in disarray. They are weak, divided and underfunded.”

EFITU and EDLC are both headquartered in Cairo, with no regional offices or strong presence elsewhere in the country.

Mostafa Bassiouny, an analyst of worker politics and the author of several books on the trade union movement, says that “over the past four years, Egypt’s independent unions have proven they are unable to build solid labor structures, to organize general strikes or to mobilize on the national level.”

Several leaders of the independent union movement — particularly from the largest federation, EFITU — “moved to support state politics since July 3, 2013, to align themselves with the Ministry of Manpower and to oppose strikes,” he argues.

“In doing so, an independent federation loses its independence, identity and purpose,” Bassiouny adds.

While EFITU’s former leader, Kamal Abu Eita, was appointed minister of manpower following the deposition of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, hopes for a political climate conducive to independent union organizing quickly evaporated with the arrival of Nahed al-Ashry, who replaced him as minister in March 2014.

Ashry gradually rose to prominence during the era of former President Hosni Mubarak, becoming the ministry’s leading go-to official for labor arbitration and dispute resolution.

Although she has described herself as neutral, with a hands-off approach to all unions, Ashry and her ministry have been accused of obstructing the authorization of new independent unions and siding with the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). Ashry has shown resolve to end strikes in order to increase investor confidence and employment opportunities, and in the past, she accused independent unions of being the main instigators of work stoppages and labor unrest in the country.

Kamel believes independent unions have become a scapegoat for the nation’s economic woes. “The ETUF’s affiliate unions have led strikes, as have independent unions and non-unionized workers alike,” he says.

Several labor activists claim Ashry favors the ETUF over other unions, as leaders of this state-controlled federation have officially authorized only two strikes in its nearly 58 year history.

Numerous articles posted on the official ETUF website claim independent unions are illegal and illegitimate, undeclared recipients of foreign funding, political agents and threats to national security — all accusations with serious legal penalties.

Some ETUF leaders even claim independent unions are involved in sabotage and sponsoring terrorist activists.

The treasurer and co-founder of the Independent Federation of Petroleum Employees, Hatem Abdel Dayyem, dismisses such claims as “baseless accusations.”

“It’s the state-controlled, yellow federation which has no legitimacy,” he argues.

Abdel Dayyem points out that ETUF’s leadership was last elected in 2006, in elections which the Administrative Court ruled null and void due to a lack of judicial supervision. Nonetheless, its leaders remained in office until their terms expired in 2011, and ministers have been appointing ETUF leaders since then.

“The ETUF claims we independent unions receive illegal foreign funding. Let them look inside our coffers — we are struggling financially, and all the money at our disposal is LE3,015. What kind of foreign funding or currency is that?” he asks.

Abdel Dayyem added that the application papers for the Independent Federation of Petroleum Employees were rejected by the Manpower Ministry in December 2014, “due to unspecified reasons.”

“We know all our paperwork is valid and in order. We also know our rights, and that our federation is officially established upon notification,” Abdel Dayyem claims.

The Manpower Ministry’s spokesperson could not be reached for clarification regarding the official recognition of this independent federation, or other questions regarding the independent union movement.

“Historically, there exists a sort of umbilical chord relationship between the ministry and ETUF. They both want to maintain these direct links,” Bassiouny explains. “Despite their shortcomings, independent unions are still closer to genuine concerns of the labor movement than ETUF, which functions more like a union police than a workers’ organization. Ashry is not seeking to wipe out independent unions, but rather to have them sidelined or coopted,” he claims.

When Ashry addressed the Arab Labor Organization last month, the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram quoted her as saying, “While Egypt is a law-abiding state, its ratification of International Labor Organization Convention 87 [concerning freedom of association and protection of the right to organize] is not synonymous with the plurality of unions.”

According to statements published on ETUF’s official website, Ashry then went on to say, “Independent unions cannot take the place of legitimate unions.” Ashry has consistently argued for the unity of the union movement, and warned against independent or alternate unions that could fragment such a unity.

Ashry commented she couldn’t overturn the recognition of independent unionists who had filed their application papers under former Manpower Minister Ahmed Hassan al-Borai.

Borai says that the foremost obstacle in the path of independent unions is their ambiguous legal status, as Trade Union Law 35/1976 — which solely recognizes the legitimacy of the state-controlled ETUF — is still in effect.

During his brief term as minister in 2011, Borai oversaw a host of unionists, labor lawyers and political figures who drafted a bill on trade union liberties to replace Law 35. The bill recognized the right to freely establish trade unions upon notification to the Ministry of Manpower. However, the consecutive ruling authorities of the past four years have kept it shelved, and the bill has yet to be ratified.

Borei explains that Law 35 runs against the essence of union freedoms stipulated for in ILO Convention 87, which Egypt ratified in 1957. Without a new trade union law guaranteeing the freedom to establish their labor organizations, he says, independent unions will continue to be left in a gray zone of isolation and marginalization.

“If Egypt does not issue legislation allowing its workers to freely organize, I fear it may be placed back on the ILO’s short-list of states violating union rights,” he cautions.

“ETUF membership is mandatory for all unionized workers according to Law 35,” Borai adds. “Automatic deductions of union dues from workers’ wages may often deter them from joining an independent union, where they would also have to pay dues.”

While their membership figures are frequently contested, ETUF claims some 5 million members.

Similarly, EFITU’s membership figures are contested. By 2013, EFITU chief Abu Eita was claiming a membership of some 2 million. But Kamel claims that the “total membership of all independent unions and federations probably does not exceed a few hundred thousand.”

It’s nearly impossible to know the real number of independent unions or their members, because “many of them are not affiliated to any federation, other unions have quit federations, while others are still forming federations, and yet others are merely unions on paper, not really existing in workplaces,” Kamel explains.

Challenges to the independence and legitimacy of these unions haven’t stopped at legal measures, however. New leadership has shown a penchant for state alignment that flies in the face of their ultimate aims.

Last year, Kamel and other EFITU co-founders froze their memberships in their federation following the actions of the incumbent president, Malek Bayoumi. Under his leadership, EFITU representatives signed a declaration sponsored by Ashry in May 2014 to halt strikes for a year.

Bayoumi was also accused of using EFITU as a platform to endorse the 2014 presidential campaign of then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Kamel and other EFITU members sought to issue a vote of no confidence against Bayoumi due to his political alignment with the ruling regime. However, their attempts failed, as they were not able to reach the required quorum of members for such a motion.

Bassem Halaga, EFITU’s secretary general, distanced himself and Bayoumi from such actions.

“There are no schisms in our federation,” Halaga claims. “However, we are facing very difficult financial circumstances. We’re not a big federation like ETUF, and we’re not propped up by the state.”

Echoing Ashry’s rhetoric, he adds, “We need some time out from strikes. We need to take into consideration our labor rights along with Egypt’s economic needs.”

This content was produced in partnership with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation

Jano Charbel 

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