For the Third Year in a Row: Celebrating Labour Day with no Progress regarding Workers' Right to Organize

Research Paper

4 May 2013
Five days after the outbreak of January Revolution, workers managed to establish their first independent union, which they called "the Egyptian Federation for Independent Trade Unions". It included male and female workers in the public, private and informal sectors, under the slogan “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”. In their continuous quest for raising their demands, workers managed to expand the geographical scope of the Revolution beyond Tahrir Square throughout the country.
After the removal of Mubarak in February 2011, workers' protests increased in number and strength. They demanded their right to organize and called for better working conditions. Soon enough, male and female workers started establishing their independent and democratic unions for the first time since the establishment of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation in 1957. Establishing independent unions broke the domination of the state over workers’ affairs through its control of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, the 2006 electoral term of which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court. On the other hand, this step has shaken the common idea that workers are divided into white-collar and blue-collar.
Almost 1200 independent unions were established in anticipation that the law regulating them (law no. 35 for the year 1976) would be changed, as this law only recognizes one union, i.e. the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. Independent unions are not allowed to act as defenders of the rights of workers and to represent them in collective bargaining in order to attain better working conditions. Male and female workers during this period were seized by the dream of establishing independent unions, unions that workers would voluntarily join based on their free choice rather than state obligation.
Female workers stood side-by-side to their male counterparts to establish these unions. They ignored their gender-specific rights for the main demand which is building free and independent unions, assuming that it is the first step towards establishing an organizational framework in which issues of working women may be prioritized. Egypt has one of the lowest shares of women in the labor market in the world (23%) and has one of the worst gender indicators rank (the 124th of 132 countries), according to the World Economic Forum. Moreover, there is a number of problems facing women at the workplace most important of which are wage inequality, and lack of nurseries at the workplace in spite of the existence of a legislation that obliges institutions with more than 100 worker (males and females) to establish nurseries, in addition to sexual harassment at the workplace, even in the most sensitive professions such as nursing.
In March 2011, the first post-Revolution government was formed. Minister of Manpower and Migration, Dr. Ahmed Al Bora'ie, dissolved the board of directors of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. At that time, one of the strongest initiatives for social dialogue was introduced including representatives of civil society organizations, the Ministry of Manpower and Migration, and independent trade unions. This initiative aimed at issuing an agreed upon law to replace Law no. 35 for the Year 1976, which restricts organizational freedoms and workers' right to freely choose the organization representing them. They put together a draft law called "Organizational Freedoms" which was approved by the Cabinet which submitted it to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which kept it in its drawers. Again, workers attempted to realize their rights through the first Parliament to be elected after the Revolution. However, their hopes vanished because of the stances of the Islamist majority parliament many members of which actively took part in the social dialogue that produced the afore-mentioned draft law. The Islamist-majority parliament drafted another law limiting organizational freedoms, actually killing independent unions which were formed after the revolution claiming to preserve the unity of workers. Workers realized that the Muslim Brotherhood were no longer an ally in this struggle. The problem exacerbated as the current government does not realize that the continuous deterioration of the situation will not end the rising protests. The current government is still convinced, similar to that of Mubarak, that stability of industrial relations could be achieved without democracy -- and that the solution to all problems lies in control, not in freedom or . According to the last report issued by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, the number of labor protests and attacks on male and female leaders of unions under Morsi has doubled compared to that under Mubarak. There is nothing to indicate that this situation may be resolved without issuing a new law allowing organizational pluralism and the representation of men and women workers on equal basis.