Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2005
Issue No. 747
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Privatise the unions

Trade union activists have lent their voices to growing demands for democratic reform, reports Faiza Rady

"The time has come for Egyptian workers to break the shackles of oppression and join the movement for chang. The livelihood of millions of workers is threatened as a result of the sweeping privatisation drive while the government-controlled General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) looks on," said Kamal Abbas of the Helwan- based Centre for Trade Union and Workers' Services (CTUWS).

Addressing 200 workers and veteran trade unionists at a Press Syndicate meeting sponsored by CTUWS on Monday, Abbas called for "the fundamental right to establish free and independent trade unions".

Lending their voice to calls for democracy and change -- until now limited to intellectuals and professionals -- workers at the meeting sought to lay claim to their own space in a nascent democratic landscape. Keynote speakers at the meeting criticised Kifaya for failing to broaden its base beyond its middle class constituency, arguing that the movement could only succeed by including workers within a broad-based coalition.

"The current calls for democracy don't even come close to touching on working class concerns," said veteran trade unionis and Tagammu MP Mohamed Abdel-Aziz Sha'ban.

While Kifaya has attracted supporters from professional syndicates, workers -- who make up the bulk of the country's 21 million strong labour force -- have remained conspicuously absent from the movement.

Monday's meeting focussed on the need to establish an independent trade union movement based on a pre-1952 model of trade union pluralism and independence.

"Before being shackled to the GFTU, membership of which is obligatory because employees have no option but to become members when they join the work force, we were free from the government and its totalitarian policies," explains Sha'ban. "I am talking to you from experience because I was a trade unionist during that period. Now the Ministry of Manpower and Migration monitors and rubber-stamps the so-called collective negotiations and agreements the GFTU imposes on the workers from the top while before 1952 the Ministry of Labour had no decision-making powers and only attended union meetings as observers. Our immediate job is to reclaim our right to organise democratically and independently."

"The GFTU opposes any form of pluralism, not only in terms of organising labour but even at the level of expressing dissenting opinion. The pretence that they have somehow achieved unity among workers gives them a pretext to speak in the name of workers every year on May Day. But they don't represent workers and they are denounced during every industrial action," says Abbas.

Topping the activists' agenda is the repeal of restrictive labour legislation, including Law 35 of 1976 which allows the GFTU to control nomination and election procedures to trade union offices and prohibits the formation of independent local unions.

Despite the fact that Law 35 of 1976 was judged unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court, says distinguished labour and civil liberties lawyer Ahmed Nabil El-Hilaly, it remains in force. It compounds the situation created by Law 73 of 1975 which exempted newly- established investment companies in tax-free zones from compliance with legal clauses relating to labour organising, depriving workers of the right to set up local union committees. "This explains why the private sector was free to impose the worst kinds of working conditions in these zones," says El-Hilaly.

Other, more recent legislation, further dismantled workers' rights. According to Clause 192 of the new Unified Labour Law of 2003 workers cannot legally strike without a green light from the GFTU which must agree any industrial action by a two-thirds majority. In the two years since the law has been in force the GFTU has not once sanctioned industrial action, leading the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICFTU) to condemn Egypt for violating UN human and social rights conventions, to which it is a signatory, guaranteeing workers' right to strike.

"The unions' ability to strike is virtually non-existent," reads the ICFTU statement.

"We will reclaim this right and the workers' inalienable right to establish independent unions," says Tagammu' MP El-Badry Farghali.

"The government is privatising the entire public sector at lightening speed and there is even talk of privatising the Suez Canal. The time has come to privatise the unions. I propose we launch our own independent federation of trade unions in July, to coincide with events commemorating the Egyptian Revolution," said Farghali.

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