Political estrangement, legal challenges hamper labor movement

With the ongoing marginalization of Egypt’s working classes, the revolutionary demands of “bread, freedom, and social justice” remain distant goals. On this second Labor Day since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, numerous labor grievances remain unaddressed, and workers are just as politically sidelined as they were prior to the revolution, observers say.

The Mubarak regime had been blamed for oppressing and exploiting workers, along with the rest of the nation, for 30 years. With its ouster, questions loom around who is behind the political marginalization of the working classes.

Is it the old laws, the new lawmakers, the ruling military junta, powerful businessmen, or politicians and their parties? Is it the fault of the trade unions and workers who are unable to claim their rightful place in the Egyptian political sphere?

One factor instrumental in curtailing the politicization of the labor movement has been legal challenges.

Since the 25 January revolution began, the state has introduced the unprecedented Law 34/2011, which criminalizes labor strikes and protests and assigns penalties of hefty fines and/or imprisonment. On the other hand, the eagerly anticipated Trade Union Liberties Law has been shelved for nearly a year since it was drafted and submitted to authorities. 

In the meantime, the restrictive Trade Union Law 35/1976 remains in effect, as the recently elected Parliament has been busy drafting a more obstructive version of the proposed Trade Union Liberties Law.

Although the state has maintained the 50 percent quota for workers and farmers’ representation in Parliament — in effect since Gamal Abdel Nasser was president — the military junta’s Constitutional Declaration and its amended Political Parties Law continue to prohibit workers from the establishment of labor or class-based parties.

“The establishment of religion-based parties has been authorized while the military junta continues to outlaw the establishment of worker-based parties,” said labor lawyer Rahma Refaat.

Most of the parties representing religious groups have registered under neutral, non-religious sounding names. Notably, the Freedom and Justice Party, born of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Nour Party, born of the Salafi Dawah, are in the parliamentary majority. Other Islamist parties have also been formed.

For the time being, a layer of organization has partially filled the political gap for the labor movement.

“The emergence of an independently organized trade union movement” is one major milestone, according to Refaat, who is also the project director of the independent Center for Trade Union and Worker Services.

The lawyer explained that, through their struggles for independent trade unionism, “Workers are gaining first hand political experience.” Challenging the state’s monopoly on trade unionism since 1957, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FITU) was established just five days into the 18-day uprising against Mubarak’s rule, on 30 January. Since then workers have established hundreds of unions, away from the confines of the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).

Labor activist Nagy Rashad from the South Cairo and Giza Flour Mills and Bakeries Company was appointed by the manpower and immigration minister last year as a member of the ETUF’s caretaker board. Rashad argued that this state-controlled union “certainly doesn’t represent Egypt’s workers.” The activist explained that the ETUF has a membership of around 4 million, while the FITU’s membership has rapidly grown to around 2 million.

“There are some 26 million [laborers] nationwide, while only 6 million of these are unionized workers,” said Rashad. “Therefore, unions represent only a minority of the Egyptian workforce.”

Ali Fattouh, a bus driver and independent union organizer with the Public Transport Authority, has a different opinion. According to Fattouh, “If a law is finally issued to protect trade union liberties, then independent and democratically elected unions will be sufficient to protect workers’ rights.”

But independent unionism aside, there is a need for the labor movement to improve lobbying for labor rights with political parties. Engaging with the existing parties has been a challenge for the movement, while forming its own parties remains impossible for legal reasons and lack of resources.

“Labor unions focus on workplace-based issues, but not purely political issues,” said Refaat. According to the lawyer, it is for this reason that thousands of workers are demanding the establishment of their own political parties. “Furthermore, workers do not feel that they are being represented through the 50 percent quota, nor through the parties in Parliament.

“The Muslim Brotherhood and the other Islamists are both economically and politically conservative, and they’ve never really supported labor strikes,” said Refaat. “The Brotherhood hopes to realize social justice through charity works. They support union democracy, but not union plurality.”

“All legally recognized and existing parties seek only their personal gains or the interests of their parties,” Fattouh said. “They don’t care in the least about workers’ rights or gains. These parties and MPs provide us with no assistance or support during our struggles. Other than lip service, they offer us nothing.

“If we have representative and accountable unions to serve us, then we will have no need for political parties,” the disgruntled unionist concluded.

However, Fattouh acknowledged the efforts of small proto-parties such as the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress and the Workers Democratic Party toward politically empowering workers. Yet he also pointed out that these are newborn entities that do not hold the legal status of political parties.

For Rashad, “What we need to defend the rights of Egyptian workers are more independent unions and federations, along with genuine parliamentary representation.”

Rashad added: “If we are legally authorized to establish parties, like the religious parties were allowed to do, then we will be able to mobilize workers nationwide. If this were the case then we wouldn’t need the 50 percent quota in Parliament. We would have large parties able to represent and protect workers’ rights.” 

Notwithstanding these legal challenges, the labor movement continues to be an important and persistent part of contentious politics, even following the 25 January uprising.

“The revolution has not yet effected enough change in terms of social, economic or political progress,” Refaat said. According to her, “Workers’ living conditions remain the same, as do their demands since the ongoing strike wave which began in December 2006.”

The lawyer pointed out that strikes are taking place, on nearly a daily basis, for very similar demands — which have been unmet since then. These demands include a minimum monthly wage of LE1,200 (around US$200) along with a fixed maximum wage, the right to establish independent unions, full-time contracts for full-time work, safer working conditions and the payment of overdue bonuses.

Refaat added: “Although the law criminalizing strikes is in effect, it has been ignored by hundreds of thousands of workers protesting for their rights. This willingness to stand up against such an unjust law is — in and of itself — an overtly political act.”

All this has amounted to “a growing political consciousness among Egypt’s working classes,” according to Refaat.

Meanwhile for Rashad, the legalization of workers’ parties won’t happen anytime soon. “The ruling regimes in Egypt have always feared the power of organized labor,” he said.

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