The Egyptian government returned control of the Ministry of Manpower to the highly contentious state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) on Monday, reversing progress made in labor rights since the 2011 revolution.
In the government’s recent Cabinet reshuffle, 57-year-old Mohamed Saafan, formerly vice president of the ETUF and president of its General Union of Petroleum Workers, replaced Gamal Sorour as minister of manpower. The appointment comes at a critical time, as Egypt’s independent trade unions are coming under fire from ETUF representatives in parliament, along with a lawsuit calling for their dissolution and criminalization.
From March 2011 to March 2016, the ministers of manpower were appointed from among the ranks of technocrats, independent union organizers and senior officials in the ministry. The last elections within the ETUF were held in late 2006, and they have been repeatedly postponed since 2011, when they were due to take place.
In May 2015, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree extending the terms of office for unelected ETUF officials by one year. Since 2011, the ministers of manpower have personally appointed the ETUF’s top leaders.
The link between the ETUF and the Ministry of Manpower has often been described as a sort of umbilical relationship that dates back to the ETUF’s establishment in 1957. This link appears to have been re-established with the appointment of Saafan.
A recent post on the ETUF’s website congratulates Saafan on his ministerial post, thanking President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for appointing him. “The ministry has returned to its rightful owners,” it says.
Saafan has issued media statements since his appointment, outlining his ambitious plans and goals for the Ministry of Manpower.
“This next phase will involve several laws … including the new labor law, which we need to actualise in order to reach a balance between both parties in the production process – workers and employers,” Safaan said in a televised interview with the privately-owned LTC satellite channel on March 26.
Unemployment, which is officially at around 13 percent (although the real unemployment rate may be significantly higher), is another major issue Safaan plans to address. “We need to cooperate with each other during this upcoming phase in order to propose ideas with which to swiftly resolve this problem, and to address it on a long-term basis. This problem affects the entire Egyptian population and continues to grow,” he said.
Other issues Safaan says he intends to focus on are the stalling of production lines and closures related to Egypt’s struggling textile industry.
But Saafan’s appointment has alarmed many labor activists and independent trade unionists.
Karim Reda, who was fired from the state-owned gas services and billing company Petrotrade, tells Mada Masr, “Saafan is the ruling regime’s man of choice, and I expect the worst violations of labor rights to be perpetrated while he presides over the ministry.”
“He will likely interfere in the drafting of new labor legislation, and will do so against the interests of independent unions, against the right to freely organize, and in violation of the right to strike,” Reda adds.
Saafan, according to Reda, is likely to issue amendments to the civil service law, which he says will only serve the interests of the state and not those of civil servants. He would also, Reda believes, prioritize the rights of businessmen in making amendments to the unified labor law and seek to maintain the ETUF as the only legally recognized trade union federation in Egypt, as stipulated by trade union law.
Indeed, according to a posting on the General Union for Petroleum Workers’ website last Monday, the new minister of manpower has reportedly refused to meet with a delegation of independent trade unionists at the ministry’s headquarters, as Saafan doesn’t recognize labor unions that are not affiliated with the ETUF.
Trade union law stipulates that all labor unions must affiliate themselves with the ETUF, giving them a monopoly over all trade union activity in Egypt.
Several draft amendments to the law have been made since 2011, pushing for the recognition of independent unions and federations in keeping with international legislation, which the Egypt has ratified since the 1950s. But the drafts have never seen the light.
The ratification of such legislation is in the hands of Parliament, not the minister of manpower, according to Niazi Mostafa, a lawyer and former member of the Legislative Committee at the ministry. He explains that a draft labor law was prepared under Safaan’s predecessor and sent to parliament for review. “However, it is being redrafted in light of reservations from businessmen’s associations,” Mostafa adds.
Saafan “is supposed to shed all his prior allegiances upon accepting this ministerial post. The minister is expected to address the needs of workers regardless of their unions, or their politics,” Mostafa argues, adding, “The policies of the new minister have yet to be assessed.”
Others, like Hoda Kamel, an independent union organizer and member of the campaign “Toward a just labor law,” don’t see Saafan’s appointment holding much hope for labor legislation. “In terms of the labor law, we have to wait and see what amendments he makes, but we’re not expecting any genuine labor gains — in terms of rights or freedoms — during his tenure,” she says, referring to Saafan’s decision to openly side against striking workers at petroleum companies.
As president of the General Union for Petroleum Workers, Saafan issued three statements against the most recent Petrotrade strike, which lasted 45 days — from December 2015 to February 2016. He “claimed our strike was instigated by revolutionary groups, and that we were seeking the downfall of the state. He also claimed we were striking despite earning LE9,000 a month. In fact we earn just LE2,500 a month, on average. All his claims against us are baseless.”
Saafan has also been actively involved in acts of union busting, particularly in relation to the establishment of a local trade union committee for employees at the state-owned Enppi and Mansoura Petroleum Companies, as documented by privately owned newspapers Youm7, Al-Masry Al-Youm, and other outlets.
Choosing to conceal his identity out of fear of retaliation, a worker from the Mansoura Petroleum Company tells Mada Masr, “We’ve been trying for nearly four years to establish a union at the company, but both the company’s administration and the General Union of Petroleum Workers have been resisting, even though we had sought to establish our union under the ETUF’s umbrella.”
Protesting petroleum workers have rarely been able to meet with Saafan. “He’s not one to resolve workers’ grievances,” Reda says. “In fact, he usually ignores our work-related demands.”