Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 September 2001
Issue No.552
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

What lies beneath

It's hard times enough for the nation's working class, yet as Fatemah Farag reports, the upcoming trade union elections look to be tepid



Facing the odds: workers contemplate the future at the outset of union elections
photo: Sherif Sonbol
It was not a trade union structure based on the concept of free choice and democratic elections. The 1957 General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), was the specific product of a populist regime, centralised planning and the public sector -- every worker employed by the public sector automatically became a member of that sole trade union structure. But for many years, on the level of shop-floor committees to be specific, the trade union structure did provide a framework for various forms of labour activism. General elections, which take place every five years, became a volatile time for workers' circles: opposition candidates challenged those close to the management who in most cases captured the lion's share of the trade union hierarchy but not without a fight.

But as the engines rev up towards this year's round of elections and the Ministry of Labour opens it doors for three days, beginning 23 September, to receive nomination applications, the tone is decidedly subdued.

These are elections that take place after the process of privatisation has clearly divided the formal working class into two distinct sections: those who work for the public business sector and those who are employed by the private sector. The liquidation of factories, downsizing of labour and early retirement policies have drastically reduced the number of public business workers by up to 60 per cent. And since the trade unions are made up almost exclusively of these public business sector workers, their constituencies have by definition been reduced drastically.

As for the private sector, most companies are not covered by the current trade union structure. "The trend now is for labour to be concentrated in the private sector, particularly in the new industrial cities," said Kamal Abbas, head of the Centre for Trade Union Workers' Services (CTUWS) and a long-time labour activist. "But in cities such as the 6th of October, where there are close to 1,000 factories, there are only six trade trade union committees. In the industrial city of the 10th of Ramadan, there are 12 trade union committees although there are over 500 factories."

Although the exact number of committees has yet to be determined -- counting will begin only after the nomination process is complete -- it is clear that they will be less than the 1,540 committees of the 1996 elections. Further, the size of many committees has been scaled down. For example, at the Helwan Factory for Spinning and Weaving, once a hotbed of labour activism, the workforce has been reduced from over 15,000 workers to 6,000, with as many as 3,000 staying at home and only going to the factory once a month to pick up their paychecks.

The official figures can be misleading, moreover. The GFTU has announced that eight million workers divided between 18 general trade unions will be voting in the upcoming elections. However, Abbas points out that "approximately 50 per cent of the number of trade union members who make up the current trade union structure belong and vote for 'professional committees.'" Drivers in the Helwan district, Abbas said, are members of a professional committee as are the construction workers in Shubra. "These are committees that have few functions. For example, a driver will only go to his union when getting his licence because he needs their signature. We cannot consider these committees or their members active components of the trade union structure or the working class." Abbas corroborates his argument by underlining that "in the last elections, as in those before them, all seats in all these committees went uncontested."

This is the context within which "government" candidates, the left and the Muslim Brotherhood, will be vying for control of committees. According to the Coordination Committee for Trade Union Rights and Freedoms, an independent forum established this month, "We have documented an undemocratic environment" such as "unjustified penalties against labour activists ... and the restrictions being placed on the amount of time for nominations."

All political forces have called for the necessity of comprehensive judicial supervision of the process because, at present, a single judge oversees the electoral process in a whole governorate.

"The government wants to see committees that will push through what remains of the privatisation programme while the Muslim Brotherhood would like to add to the successes they made in the parliamentary and Bar Association elections," Abbas said. "And this time around, the left has changed its election programme from calling for the protection of the public sector to focusing on the protection of workers' rights, irrespective of who the management is. After all, there is a big battle ahead with the draft Unified Labour Law coming up for discussion in parliament's next session."

It is these issues that will make some of the last remaining outposts of what traditionally comprised labour activism, if not hot spots, at least warm arenas of action.

It was not a trade union structure based on the concept of free choice and democratic elections. The 1957 General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), was the specific product of a populist regime, centralised planning and the public sector -- every worker employed by the public sector automatically became a member of that sole trade union structure. But for many years, on the level of shop-floor committees to be specific, the trade union structure did provide a framework for various forms of labour activism. General elections, which take place every five years, became a volatile time for workers' circles: opposition candidates challenged those close to the management who in most cases captured the lion's share of the trade union hierarchy but not without a fight.

But as the engines rev up towards this year's round of elections and the Ministry of Labour opens it doors for three days, beginning 23 September, to receive nomination applications, the tone is decidedly subdued.

These are elections that take place after the process of privatisation has clearly divided the formal working class into two distinct sections: those who work for the public business sector and those who are employed by the private sector. The liquidation of factories, downsizing of labour and early retirement policies have drastically reduced the number of public business workers by up to 60 per cent. And since the trade unions are made up almost exclusively of these public business sector workers, their constituencies have by definition been reduced drastically.

As for the private sector, most companies are not covered by the current trade union structure. "The trend now is for labour to be concentrated in the private sector, particularly in the new industrial cities," said Kamal Abbas, head of the Centre for Trade Union Workers' Services (CTUWS) and a long-time labour activist. "But in cities such as the 6th of October, where there are close to 1,000 factories, there are only six trade trade union committees. In the industrial city of the 10th of Ramadan, there are 12 trade union committees although there are over 500 factories."

Although the exact number of committees has yet to be determined -- counting will begin only after the nomination process is complete -- it is clear that they will be less than the 1,540 committees of the 1996 elections. Further, the size of many committees has been scaled down. For example, at the Helwan Factory for Spinning and Weaving, once a hotbed of labour activism, the workforce has been reduced from over 15,000 workers to 6,000, with as many as 3,000 staying at home and only going to the factory once a month to pick up their paychecks.

The official figures can be misleading, moreover. The GFTU has announced that eight million workers divided between 18 general trade unions will be voting in the upcoming elections. However, Abbas points out that "approximately 50 per cent of the number of trade union members who make up the current trade union structure belong and vote for 'professional committees.'" Drivers in the Helwan district, Abbas said, are members of a professional committee as are the construction workers in Shubra. "These are committees that have few functions. For example, a driver will only go to his union when getting his licence because he needs their signature. We cannot consider these committees or their members active components of the trade union structure or the working class." Abbas corroborates his argument by underlining that "in the last elections, as in those before them, all seats in all these committees went uncontested."

This is the context within which "government" candidates, the left and the Muslim Brotherhood, will be vying for control of committees. According to the Coordination Committee for Trade Union Rights and Freedoms, an independent forum established this month, "We have documented an undemocratic environment" such as "unjustified penalties against labour activists ... and the restrictions being placed on the amount of time for nominations."

All political forces have called for the necessity of comprehensive judicial supervision of the process because, at present, a single judge oversees the electoral process in a whole governorate.

"The government wants to see committees that will push through what remains of the privatisation programme while the Muslim Brotherhood would like to add to the successes they made in the parliamentary and Bar Association elections," Abbas said. "And this time around, the left has changed its election programme from calling for the protection of the public sector to focusing on the protection of workers' rights, irrespective of who the management is. After all, there is a big battle ahead with the draft Unified Labour Law coming up for discussion in parliament's next session."

It is these issues that will make some of the last remaining outposts of what traditionally comprised labour activism, if not hot spots, at least warm arenas of action.

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