Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 May - 4 June 2008
Issue No. 899
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A credible alternative

Though the courts have ruled that the closure of the Centre for Trade Unions' and Workers' Services is "unconstitutional" its doors remain shut, reports Faiza Rady

"It's been two months since the 30 March court ruling that the Ministry of Social Solidarity's order to close the Centre for Trade Unions' and Workers' Services (CTUWS) on 25 April 2007 'lacked causation' and that the closure violates 'the right of assembly, an essential constitutional right'," says Kamal Abbas CTUWS coordinator. "And though we've provided all the necessary legal documents to register as an NGO the ministry continues to ignore our request."

Guy Ryder, secretary-general of the International Trade Union Federation, which represents 168 million workers in 155 countries, has called for the court ruling to be enforced. "We urge the Egyptian government to ensure that CTUWS is allowed to carry out its legitimate activities, and to ensure that internationally-recognised fundamental labour standards be fully respected in law and in practice for all Egyptians," said Ryder.

In solidarity with CTUWS, a delegation of NGOs met with Judge Mohamed Shatat of the Council of State on Monday to inform him of the ministry's non-compliance with the judiciary. Shatat assured the delegation that the ruling would be enforced.

In March and April 2007 orders were issued to close the CTUWS regional office in the northern Delta town of Mahala Al-Kubra and the southern town of Naga Hammadi, Qena governorate, as well as CTUWS's headquarters in the industrial southern Cairo suburb of Helwan. The authorities claimed that the centre had failed to comply with regulations on the registration of NGOs set by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. Though CTUWS is registered as a civil company, it operates as an NGO.

The CTUWS rejects the argument as specious. "The law regulating NGO registration... is arbitrary and involves so much red tape that the majority of NGOs have chosen to register as civil companies," says Adel Zakaria, editor of the centre's magazine Kalam Sanay'ia (Workers' Talk). "We attempted to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs before the closure but the application was rejected."

Between 2003 and June 2007 CTUWS tried repeatedly to register through the Ministry of Social Solidarity. The application was reviewed and verbally approved by all concerned departments only to be rejected by the State Security. "The registration was denied because State Security officials objected," says the centre's lawyer Rahma Rifaat.

Other rights organisations face similar difficulties. In addition to having to work their way through a maze of red tape, NGO registration requires the approval of a nebulous state security apparatus whose decisions cannot be challenged. "They make a decision and I don't know who they are, and I cannot meet them in court. Their actions show a basic disrespect for the law," Human Rights Watch (HRW) quoted one activist as saying.

"There is no single source from which to obtain information on registration difficulties," says HRW. "In 2004, Human Rights Watch twice requested relevant data from the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs but received no reply."

"The single most important factor in NGO registration -- the opinion of the State Security Investigation bureau of the Ministry of Interior -- has no basis in law," notes HRW. Law 84/2002 states that applications for NGO registration are approved by the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs (currently the Ministry of Social Solidarity), and makes no mention of any state security role in the process. Yet in practice all applications must first be approved by the State Security Investigations, the Ministry of Interior bureau which has a section in the Ministry of Social Solidarity.

The Ministry of Social Solidarity has accused the CTUWS of "inciting" the December 2006 strike at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahala Al-Kubra over the government's failure to make good the prime minister's decree to increase end-of-year bonuses for all public sector textile workers. The strike, which involved some 27,000 workers, was the largest industrial action since the 1990s.

While workers at the Misr plant dismiss the allegations they clearly lie behind the decision to close the centre. Article 11 of Law 84/2002 places a blanket ban on "political" or "trade union" activities.

"We have our own agenda. The decision to strike was ours, and ours alone," says Sayed Habib, a veteran labour activist at the Misr plant. "CTUWS's role was to counsel, inform and legally assist our industrial actions, if need be. In December 2006, plant managers initially denied that the prime minister had issued a decree to increase bonuses and the centre assisted us by documenting the facts."

The CTUWS has also been held responsible for the wave of labour strikes that have erupted since December 2006. "This is most flattering," says Abbas, "though I wonder how they explain that the strikes continued unabated after the centre was closed down."

Co-founded in 1990 by the late Youssef Darwish, the labour lawyer and political activist who passed away in June of 2006, and Kamal Abbas, CTUWS was intended to provide an independent alternative to the government-controlled General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions (GFETU). Workers maintain that the federation has failed to fulfil its role as a representative of labour and industrial arbiter, not least because it consistently refuses to support industrial action.

CTUWS promotes the rights of women in the labour force, provides legal services to workers, counsels them about their rights, organises educational workshops and reports on labour-rights violations. They also published Kalam Sanay'ia, the only workers' magazine in the country, providing a unique focus on labour issues. In 1999 the centre was awarded the French Republic's Human Rights Prize for "excellence in legal assistance, advice and vocational programmes for industrial workers".

"The CTUWS has done exemplary work in its Mahala Al-Kubra branch," says Habib. "They organised classes to inform workers of rights enshrined in national and international labour legislation, to which Egypt is a signatory, and they trained us to campaign and participate in local union elections. In terms of education and training their role was that of a genuine trade union as opposed to the GFETU, which has lost all credibility. When we speak about the federation we refer to them as the 'government'. Historically, they have always sided with management, refusing to represent workers and negotiate on their behalf. It is the CTUWS that has filled the void and supported our struggle. I can't praise them enough."

As long as labour unrest remained dormant the CTUWS was allowed to operate with relative freedom. But when the workers' movement re-emerged in 2006, following long years of stagnation, a clampdown was inevitable. "The attack on the CTUWS is part of the intensification of the regime's assaults against its opponents," says Egyptian labour historian Joel Beinin.

The clampdown may have been accelerated by the centre's role in monitoring the results of the 26 March 2007 referendum on amendments to the constitution, and their documentation of widespread fraud in all monitored constituencies," says the Euro- Mediterranean Human Rights Network.

CTUWS activists believe the GFETU is behind the closure of their centre. GFETU President Hussein Megawer went on the offensive after Mahala Al-Kubra textile workers threatened to impeach him for having staged fraudulent union elections in October 2006. Addressing a television audience a few weeks before the centre's closure, Megawer referred to Abbas as a "foreign agent", with no labour base or "credibility" in the workers' movement. The CTUWS had documented widespread fraud in the trade union elections, describing them as "the worst in Egyptian history".

Providing an alternative model and calling for an independent federation of trade unions, the CTUWS constitutes a major challenge to the GFETU. "When the International Federation of Free Trade Unions came to Cairo in 2004, they consulted with us and we were invited to attend their Tokyo meeting as observers," says Abbas. "We are credible international partners and interlocutors, and that's a problem."

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