Draft law threatens independent unions, but workers vow to fight

A new draft law introduced in Parliament threatens to dissolve the independent trade unions that have sprung up in various sectors over the past year, but independent labor activists say that if the law passes, they won’t go without a fight.

Up to 2 million workers are thought to be members of the recently founded independent unions, which exist alongside, or instead of, the old, state-sanctioned unions in workplaces around the country. However, while in some cases the law would be resisted vigorously, it would also likely expose the weakness of many new unions, which still have shallow roots.

Three draft laws for the regulation of trade unions in Egypt have been proposed. The most likely among these to make the statute books is proposed by a group of MPs, most of whom are members of the Freedom and Justice Party, with a background in the state-sanctioned Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).

Most controversially, the law would prevent workers from organizing more than one union within any enterprise. Workers' committees at each enterprise would apparently be allowed to choose which union federation they would like to affiliate with at least once every four years. But subject to a lawsuit, any other union which attempted to establish itself would be “automatically dissolved” and its assets seized.

Independent trade unionists, who founded their organizations either in the upsurge of workers activity around 2006-2008 or in 2011, say they will be presented with a stark choice. If they refuse to merge into the ETUF unions and are unable to win a vote among workers for the status of official union, they will have to either disband or defy judicial orders.

The Independent School Teachers Union is one of those facing up to this threat.  It claims 80,000 members in the education system, and led a strike in September which led to the closure of schools around the country.  The Ministry of Education has promised the union to abolish the seasonal contracts under which around 100,000 teachers are employed by July 2012.  The union says that the salaries of those teachers will double as a result.

“There will be strikes, demonstrations and an insecure work environment for investors,” says Sayed Abul Azim, president of the union's Cairo branch. The ETUF teachers' union did not back their strike, and he says that hard-pressed teachers are relying on the independent union to defend their day to day interests, as well as improve the quality of education in Egypt. Muslim Brotherhood candidates swept the board in the ETUF teachers' union elections which took place after the strike, but only around 10 percent of teachers voted.

Among the hundreds of independent unions, however, perhaps only a few are seriously in a position to defend their independence. These include the teachers, the real estate tax collectors and the healthcare professionals, which were initiated prior to the 2011 revolution.

“The majority of the new unions are detached from the real movement” says Timur Wageddin, a journalist and activist. “After the revolution there was a mushrooming of strikes. But you will find, if you analyze, that most of the striking sectors are not unionized, and most of the unions are not striking. And even when this isn't true, the leaders of the strike were not necessarily the leaders of the unions.”

Abdel Hafiz Tayel, national vice president of the Independent School Teachers Union, agrees with Wageddin that many of the independent unions may be reabsorbed into the traditional structures.

“Of course, for some of the weaker unions, it will be a setback. It is natural that part of the workers will go to ETUF,” he says. In some cases, it is possible that independent unions will receive official recognition as the legitimate representative of workers.

Khaled Azheri, a senior ETUF official and the FJP MP leading the proposal of the draft law, argues that the law he proposes promises both freedom of association for workers, and stability for the economy as a whole. “Our main target is just to protect the Egyptian economy in this transitional period; we need stability in the workplace,” he told Egypt Independent.

Labor lawyers Khaled Ali and Nadim Mansour, Executive Director of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, believe that support for the draft law would represent a break with the party's manifesto which promises commitment to the freedom of trade union association. Both also agree that the law would be incompatible with Egypt's constitution and with its commitments under international law.

Azheri says that freedom of association “doesn't mean a right for a minority to form a new union.”

However, the International Labor Organization (ILO) of the United Nations, which sets international standards for labor law, has established a Freedom of Association Committee, which has different view.

“The right of workers to establish organizations of their own choosing implies, in particular, the effective possibility to create, if the workers so choose, more than one workers organization per enterprise. Provisions which require a single union for each enterprise, trade or occupation are not in accordance with Article 2 of Convention No. 87,” the ILO Freedom of Association Committee's Digest of Decisions and Principles states.

The committee has reiterated this position in no less than 20 separate decisions.

According to Ali, senior FJP figures once supported trade union pluralism, but recently changed their view.

“Before the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood worked with me to draft a proposed syndicate law which would have guaranteed trade union pluralism. Saber Aboul Fotouh, the head of the Labor Force Committee in Parliament now, was part of this, along with Yosri Bayoumi, who is now supported by the FJP to be the Labor Minister. But immediately after the revolution, they switched,” Ali says.

Azheri believes that Egypt's economic crisis calls for special measures. But he also claims that workers will benefit from the greater unity proposed by the law. Wageddin agrees with the goal, but disagrees with the method.

“Unity is a goal which we should achieve through convincing different trends amongst the workers' movement to unite. But we should fight for the right of unions to be free,” Wageddin says.  

According to Nadim Mansour, “We can already see a process where some mergers are taking place, and it's a healthy process.”

This is also the judgment of the ILO, which maintains that “it may be to the advantage of workers to avoid a multiplicity of trade unions, but this choice should be made freely and voluntarily.”

Azheri says that a special committee has been established in Parliament to listen to representatives from interested parties, including the ILO and independent union activists.

Tayel thinks that the FJP is likely to modify the law before it is ratified. But, if they don't, he is optimistic about what lies ahead.

“Laws are there to be broken. A bad law shouldn't be followed. The people of Egypt struggled hard for the right to organize. Hundreds of people were killed for this right, and we are ready to fight again.”

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