Avoiding the blacklist: Egyptian labor elections as key to investment

The first labor elections to be held in Egypt in 12 years came to a close at in early June. However, while state officials championed the elections as transparent and fair, not much changed in the composition of labor blocs, with the state-affiliated Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) emerging from the process effectively in control of the unions. In fact, the exclusion of non-state aligned labor candidates from the electoral process meant that the majority of those who ran were ETUF figures.

The three-stage elections — broken down into those for committees within unions, those for union heads, and those for federations — were part of an over year long process that saw Egypt trying to improve the appearance of labor conditions in the country by meeting certain international benchmarks. The stakes were high in this process, as failing to meet these benchmarks had led to Egypt being blacklisted by the International Labor Organization several times in the past. Key export agreements, not least of which were important textile exports with the Walt Disney Company, were also at stake.

An important landmark in bringing about the elections was the passage of a labor union law in December that, in theory, ended the monopoly system of one union and conforms to the constitutional principle allowing for “the establishment of federations and syndicates on a democratic basis [as] a right guaranteed by law.”

State rhetoric has championed the extent of the changes introduced by the legislation. At the close of the first round of elections for union committees, Manpower Minister Mohamed Saafan said on May 31 that there had been up to a 80 percent change in regulators governing unions. More recently, during a Sunday meeting with representatives for the general syndicate of petrol employees, Saafan said elections had been held with “complete clarity and transparency,” adding that the ministry had not interfered but only provided supervision.

In the same meeting, Saafan presented the election results as positive, saying that only 50 percent of general syndicate heads were settled through acclamation, meaning that self-nominated candidates ran unopposed. He added that the turnover on union committees was 80 to 100 percent in some cases, something that had not been seen in the past.

However, the election process and results tell a different story, one that saw non-state aligned labor committees excluded from registration and thousands of others prevented from standing in the election. Several independent figures involved in labor unions argue that the law and elections were superficial gestures to appease the ILO.  

Kamal Abbas, the head of Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS), a non-governmental organization founded and run by labor figures, is one of those. He says that the 2017 law and the union elections only came to fruition because of a promise the government made to the ILO. “But the government does not care for union freedoms,” he says.

“Egypt wanted to be part of the [Better Work] program at the ILO, because of the investments in entails. And the program necessitates that countries adhere to labor standards, including the right to form unions,” Abbas tells Mada Masr. “Egypt faced the problem of the [union] law being old and inconsistent with the labor agreements it had signed, so it had to issue a new one.”

Abbas’s sentiment is shared by labor activist Fatma Ramadan.

“The state does not want anyone organizing. The labor union law was only issued to win favor with the International Labor Organization, but it places very restrictive conditions on the right to organize,” she told Mada Masr previously. “Despite this, people have tried to abide by the law in order to formalize their status, but the response was intransigency and the withdrawal or elimination of their files.”

According to a CTUWS report, 108 labor committees were able to formalize their status in accordance with the new law. All of these, however, were ETUF affiliated. The report also documents that the ministry excluded thousands that had wanted to run for election, without providing a reason or citing bureaucratic or security reasons, as well as the arrest of some.

In the second stage of the elections, 14 of 27 labor unions did not hold elections at the council or president level, with members and union heads being chosen by acclamation. Four unions elected members to their administrative councils, but selected their heads by acclamation, while two others elected their heads but chose their members by acclamation. Only seven general unions held elections for both members and heads, according to the CTUWS report.

In June, the ILO’s blacklist was released without Egypt’s name, a sign that the organization was convinced that the measures that preceding the elections, including the December legislation, addressed its concerns.

Beyond the elections

The story of this year’s labor elections starts with a 2016 World Bank report on governance. While it reflected marginal improvements in the indicators for control over corruption, government efficiency, political stability and rule of law, it also showed that Egypt had regressed in the indicators for organizational and regulatory quality.

In February 2017, The Walt Disney Company informed the United States government that they would stop importing textiles from 28 Egyptian companies, valued at US$150 million a year, due to the indicators posted in the World Bank report and Egypt’s ineligibility for the ILO’s “Better Work” program.

The Egyptian government was worried, not only because of the losses resulting from Disney’s imports, which are part of the Qualifying Industrial Zone (QIZ) trade agreements that allow Egypt to export textiles to the US if the products have a minimum Israeli component of 10.5 percent, but also because this affected other investments.

Therefore, Egypt began talks with the ILO. In May 2017, Trade and Industry Minister Tarek Qabil announced that, as of June, Egypt would be joining the Better Work program, in cooperation with the ILO and the Ready Made Garments Export Council, for six months, starting with the ready-made garments sector.

In July 2017, Qabil announced that Disney had lifted the ban on Egyptian exports. Within six months, Parliament had agreed to the law on labor unions, which the government had submitted to the legislature at the start of 2017.

In March 2018, the Better Work program announced the extension of the preliminary cooperation with Egypt until the end of the year, after which it would decide whether Egypt would become a permanent member of the program. This seemed to be a response to the Egyptian government’s seeming efforts to follow international labor standards.

The Better Work program is a cooperation-based program between the ILO and the World Bank-affiliated International Finance Corporation. It is implemented in seven countries in the textile sector. It aims to improve the competitive ability of the sector, in addition to improving labor conditions and respecting labor rights. In Egypt, the experimental Better Work program was set up per the request of the government, according to the program’s official website, and aims to test the program’s ability to improve labor conditions and the competitive ability of the Egyptian export textile sector.

The blacklist

In 2008, the ILO decided to add Egypt’s name to its blacklist of countries with the most labor union violations, due to its inability to meet its international obligations in accordance with Convention 87 on the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize regarding the guarantee of union freedoms and the legislation of a new labor union law, a decision the ILO repeated in 2010.

The period after the January 2011 revolution was a window of opportunity for labor organizations, and a moment during which Egypt was momentarily removed from the ILO blacklist. On March 12, 2011, the minister of manpower at the time, Ahmed al-Borai, issued a decision permitting workers to form independent unions, provided they submit papers to the ministry as a temporary measure until a new law was passed. The decision allowed hundreds of independent unions to form in the months following. In June 2011, the Cabinet approved a new labor union law presented by Borai, prompting the ILO to remove Egypt’s name from its blacklist.

But the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which was in power at the time, refused to issue the law. In August 2011, Borai made a decision to dissolve the board of ETUF in accordance with judicial rulings and form a temporary committee to run the board until elections were held. In the years following, there were several attempts through legislation to regulate labor unions, but none were passed. And Egypt was added to the ILO’s blacklist several times since 2013.

In May 2017, the ILO sent its standards committee to Egypt, at the request of the government. The privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported that the request was a last effort by the government to remove Egypt’s name from the blacklist during the ILO’s annual conference, citing sources within the Ministry of Manpower. The committee gave its observations regarding several laws, including the proposed labor union law. The attempt was unsuccessful, however, and during its annual conference in June of the same year, the ILO decided to add Egypt’s name to its blacklist again.

Egypt was again added to the blacklist by the ILO’s standards committee after discussions with representatives from the Egyptian government and international organizations. In a report published following the organizations 2017 annual conference, the committee said that it regretted that there were contradictions between the law in place at the time and the articles of Convention 87. The committee called for consistency between new legislation and the convention’s stipulations, specifically as it pertains to the convention’s prohibition on a single labor union monopoly, as well as for the Egyptian government to guarantee the right of unions to elect leadership and pursue their activities freely, “either legally or in practice.”

Convention 87, which was written in 1948, came into effect in 1950 and was ratified by Egypt in 1957. Article 11 of the convention states,“Each Member of the International Labour Organisation for which this Convention is in force undertakes to take all necessary and appropriate measures to ensure that workers and employers may exercise freely the right to organise.”

After the Conference Committee on the Application of Standards’ visit to Egypt in November 2017, a number of remarks were made on the draft of the law at the time. Some of them were positive, regarding how Egypt had addressed reservations that the committee had expressed during its meeting with the government last year, such as ETUF’s monopoly and the necessity of obtaining approval from the state-controlled trade union federation to organize a strike. The committee also expressed concern that workers were not allowed to join more than one union and objected to the prison terms stipulated for the violation of the proposed legislation, as well as Egyptian officials’ interference in internal union affairs, such as funding sources, particularly if found to be international. The committee called for the new law to be brought into accordance with Convention 87.

When Parliament approved the labor union law in December of that year, it still included many of the articles the ILO had objected to. Among them are articles pertaining to prison sentences for violating the regulations the law introduces, including founding labor unions without meeting official conditions, as well as demanding inflated figures to establish the three different types of labor organizations it provides for: shop floor committees, trade unions and federations.

Abbas, the head of CTUWS, says that Egypt’s name was removed from the blacklist, “despite the new law being in violation of Convention 87 and despite the violations which marred the elections.”

Abbas says that experts at the ILO were surprised when he communicated the violations to them.

He explains the removal from the blacklist despite the rampant violations as a sign of the ILO’s diminishing role and its lack of regulatory force, adding that the organization had become a space for negotiations, compromise and pressure.

Over the years, the ILO had given Egypt several chances and removed it from the blacklist based on the Egyptian government’s promises to improve the situation of workers and improve labor relations, according to Abbas. Based on the same promises, he adds, Egypt was preliminarily added to the Better Work program, which includes international partners in the form of transnational corporations with investments in Egypt, such as Walt Disney.

Abbas believes there is a possibility that Egypt’s name will be re-added to the list next year if its promises are not met.

An International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) report published in 2018, which slotted in Egypt as one of the worst 10 countries regarding worker rights, reinforces Abbas’ opinion.

The report details government oppression, discrimination and mass arrests for workers, pointing to the arrest of nine labor leaders from the Real Estate Tax Authority for one month in 2017 after they called for a peaceful sit-in. The labor figures faced a range of charges from incitement to strike to joining an illegal group. The report also mentioned that earlier in 2017, 32 women at the Tourah Cement Company were sentenced to three years in prison on charges of protesting, after they organized a sit-in because the company did not enforce a judicial ruling regarding their employment rights. The sentence was later reduced to two months.

Mada Masr reached out to the ILO for comment on Egypt after the new law, the elections, the ensuing violations and the Better Work program but received no reply.

During the elections

Two days before voting in the second phase of committee elections commenced on May 3, a number of union committee hopefuls from the Helwan Iron and Steel company were surprised to find they had been scratched off the list of candidates. In their anger, the 27 workers of the 126 who had been excluded organized a sit-in at the company headquarters, before seeking out an appeal on their exclusion.

Al-Sayed Saad Eddin, an employee of the company for 39 years, was among those excluded. He had hoped to run for the position of head of the union committee. Instead, the Ministry of Manpower accepted the documents of a competitor who had retired in December 2017, but whose contract was renewed for a year. This candidate won the elections, by acclamation after other candidates were excluded, Saad Eddin told Mada Masr.

When one of the excluded candidates filed an appeal at the Cairo Stadium, where the Manpower Ministry was accepting and filing documentation regarding candidacy and appeals, police prevented him from meeting with any ministry employees. Instead, the excluded candidate had to hand in their paperwork to one of the conscripts. Saad Eddin, who stayed at the stadium until election night, could not get an official response to an appeal he has filed himself, or even an official document explaining his exclusion. He left on the dawn of election day after police threatened him and others using police dogs, according to him.

Saad Eddin’s account is not unique — workers in different sectors and engaging with both parts of the union committee elections faced similar problems. According to press reports, 20,087 workers applied to run in the union committee elections, 17,974 of whom were shooting for committee board positions, while 2,113 were running to head 1,191 of the 2,114 committees that had their statuses officially recognized.

The ministry did not release the number of candidates for the second stage.

Fathy Morsi, who works at the Ahram Consumer Complexes and who was the treasurer of the company’s union committee from 2015 to 2018, tells Mada Masr that he applied to be the head of his committee. But two days before the election date, they found out that the folders of 14 of 53 candidates, including Morsi, had been lost, despite all candidates turning in their documents together and being given proof of receipt.

Morsi filed an appeal against his exclusion.

After the appeal process, he found his name listed on the ballot for a position as a member of the committee, rather than its head. He was surprised on election day when one of his colleagues congratulated one of the candidates who had won the position by acclamation, meaning he was recorded as running unopposed. Morsi accused the winning candidate of being allied with ETUF.

Ahmed Qasem, however, an employee at El Nasr For Coke & Chemicals since 2005 and who has a history of participating in sit-ins and strikes, is seeking to reinstate his and his colleagues’ rights. He tells Mada that he was excluded from running for membership of his union committee “for security reasons,” indicating that “the company does not want people who care about labor rights.”

Out of 45 hopefuls, the Ministry of Manpower excluded Qasem and four others. Because the final rosters with candidates’ names were not announced, Qasem found out unofficially that he had been excluded on election night, at which point he could not file an appeal. “My excluded colleagues and I are popular within the company because we fight for people’s rights. That’s why we were excluded. I found out they had removed information about my criminal record from my file, even though my criminal record is clear, and now the judiciary is my only option,” says Qasem.

Exclusions were not only due to security reasons.

Gamal al-Zomor, who was a member of the former National Democratic Party (NDP) and was the vice president of the Commercial Professions Syndicate for 18 years, turned his documents in to run for presidency of the union committee at the Nile Company for Consumer Complexes, but he did not find his name on the list of candidates.

This happened to 44 others, prompting Zomor and his colleagues to abstain from voting. Zomor and his colleagues appealed their exclusions and elections were re-held on June 6. When Zomor checked the list of candidates, he once again could not find his name, along with 24 others. The committee supervising the elections directed them to the judiciary. But Zomor had already brought a case before a court of urgent matters and the date to look into the case was set for June 19, which came after the election date.

Mohamed Afifi was able to run for the membership of the union committee for human resources at Telecom Egypt. However, he faced a different problem. On election day, the rosters were missing the names of half of those eligible to vote.

“Someone would come to vote, and they would not find their name. They registered people from my committee as members of other committees, and there was no judge present to complain to. There was only a representative of the Ministry of Manpower,” he says.

In a June 3 conference organized by CTUWS to address concerns about the elections, and during which workers recounted a number of violations that happened in their respective committees, Abbas said that not only did these elections fall short of “fair,” they were the worst labor elections Egypt had ever seen.

The list of violations Abbas outlined during the conference ran on. He asserted that exclusions were engineered to determine election outcomes for ETUF’s benefit and criticized the limited time period permitted for unions to formalize their status ahead of the elections. He also accused the committee overseeing the elections, which included a Manpower Ministry and an ETUF representative, of being biased. Abbas pointed to the delays in releasing candidate lists to deny candidates the right to appeal, the delay in opening designated committees for voting on voting days, the presence of unstamped documents, and the violations in vote counting that took place without oversight from the representatives of the candidates.

Elections for general unions were not free of violations either.

The CTUWS’s May report contained several instances of people being excluded from the general union elections, including Magda Ibrahim, who applied to run for president of the General Union for Financial, Tax and Customs Workers but found her name missing from her union’s the general assembly roster. This prompted her to file an administrative complaint on June 4 against the head of the union administration, Magdy Shaaban. In the complaint, she accused him of removing her membership documents at her union. Ibrahim also filed another complaint on June 11, accusing Shaaban of forging general assembly information in his favor.

Her papers were ultimately approved and she was accepted as a candidate for the presidency of the general union.

CTUWS asserts in its report that the violations it has documented are sufficient to jeopardize Egypt’s investment opportunities.

“The government claims that there is no new information to justify Egypt’s addition to the ILO’s blacklist and which would deny it the opportunity to participate in the Better Work program, which gives the state better investment opportunities. But in reality, instead of fixing the situation, the state is reproducing the causes which put it on the blacklist in the first place,” read the report.

Still, Abbas tells Mada Masr that what happened was “good,” explaining that “workers must now found their own independent unions, protect their constitutional rights and leave state-affiliated unions.”

Article 76 of the Constitution states that “The establishment of syndicates and federations on democratic basis is a right guaranteed by law. Syndicates and federations shall acquire legal personality, shall have the right to practice their activities freely, shall improve the level of efficiency among their members and defend their rights and interests. The state shall guarantee the independence of all syndicates and federations and their boards of directors may only be dissolved by a court judgment.”

Mada Masr has reached out to the official spokesperson of the Ministry of Manpower for comment but has received no reply as of the date of writing this report.

Hadeer El-Mahdawy 

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