Workers and journalists raised a number of grievances during a conference on Tuesday, hosted by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), over increasing punitive measures against them in recent months.
Some claimed that such measures, which have included dismissals, forced relocations and retirements, pay deductions and criminal charges, are punishment for oppositional views to their employers or the state, whilst others point to a lack of legal recourse and legislation protecting their rights.
The criminalizing of the right to strike and lack of union or syndicate support was foremost in the minds of both workers and journalists, who voiced concerns and shared experiences.
Panelists at the conference, dubbed, “Lay-offs, forced retirements, and trumped-up charges against labor leaders and journalists,” called for the release of Yasser Mahmoud, a worker from the state-owned Egypt Gas Company who was jailed on charges of instigating strikes, and of Mohamed Zaki, a worker who was sacked from the state-owned Petrotrade Company and is in police custody pending criminal investigations related to his involvement in strike action.
Grievances were also raised by workers from Egypt’s largest textile company, the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra. Prominent labor leader Kamal al-Fayoumy was sacked from his job on April 16, after company administrators charged him with instigating strikes resulting in millions of pounds worth of losses.
Prior to Fayoumy’s dismissal, another two labor leaders, Nagy Haidar and Gamal Gad were dismissed from the company in February for similar reasons.
“We went on strike in protest against the mismanagement and rampant corruption in our company,” Fayoumy said.
The company blamed our strike action for financial loses, which the state’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) reported amounts to LE1.3 billion, he explained, adding, “In reality, my two co-workers and I were sacked because we demanded accountability and an end to corruption.”
Fayoumy accused the current government of favoritism towards businessmen and investors, while neglecting employment rights.
Lawyer at the ECESR Alaa Abdel Tawwab sarcastically suggested, “Instead of celebrating Labor Day in Egypt, perhaps we should start celebrating the ‘Day of Punitive Dismissals’,” as they have become a daily occurrence.
He said lack of new legislation to replace the Trade Union Law 35 (1976) has meant that independent labor unions are still not recognized and that punitive measures are often taken against those involved in labor action in their workplaces as a result.
A draft law, the “Trade Union Liberties Law,” was prepared in 2011 to replace Law 35, but was never passed.
ECESR lawyers took part in a campaign — “Towards a Just Labor Law” — to draft a new law to replace Unified Labor Law 12 (2003). A draft was published on May 1 this year.
Labor activists claim the provisions of Law 12 (2003) facilitate the punitive sacking of workers for engaging in strikes and other industrial action.
Abdel Tawwab argued that, instead of siding with those demanding basic labor rights, Egypt’s judiciary has actively sided against them.
“It is a catastrophe that the Supreme Administrative Court forced striking workers in the public sector into early retirement, especially as this violates Constitutional Article 15, and a host of international rights conventions to which Egypt is a state party.”
According to Abdel Tawwab, “If the court claims that strikes are criminal actions, then it is the court that is committing a crime” by violating the constitution.
The lawyer dismissed the court’s verdict that labor strikes are a breach of Islamic Sharia Law. “Sharia Law does not directly refer to strikes or other forms of industrial actions,” he said.
Ahmed Shaheed, a former fare-collector and independent unionist at the Public Transport Authority (PTA), is another labor leader who was sacked from his job this year for instigating strikes and obstructing public bus services.
Shaheed and the PTA authorities accuse each other of responsibility for hefty loses.
“Egyptian law now criminalizes workers’ protest marches, and penalizes public sector employees who exercise their lawful right to strike,” Shaheed said.
A total of 32 PTA employees, including Shaheed, are due to stand trial before the State Council Court on May 15, and again in another trial on June 13, for strikes they led in 2012 and 2013.
According to leftist labor lawyer, Haytham Mohamadeen, the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has taken criminal action against striking workers on the basis that they are harming the national economy, incurring financial losses, and deterring investment.
The government “never pursues businessmen for engaging in the equivalent of employers’ strikes, such as: mass lay-offs, punitive sackings, lockouts, factory closures, and capital flight abroad, even though such actions may strongly harm the national economy and incur billions of pounds worth of losses,” Mohamadeen asserted.
Recent remarks by the former justice minister, when he commented that the children of workers could not join the judiciary, are indicative of the regime’s classist attitudes, he claimed, adding, “You’ll never see the police cracking down on employers when they establish their chambers of commerce, or business associations.”