Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 April - 6 May 2009
Issue No. 945
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A way out

This week the International Labour Organisation (ILO) turns 90. Built on a tripartite structure, the ILO is the only UN agency where governments, employers and workers are represented. It considers social dialogue a cornerstone of social stability. Mustafa Said, chief technical adviser, ILO's Social Dialogue Programme in Egypt, speaks to Nesmahar Sayed about social dialogue as a means of achieving the "decent work" concept

Mustafa Said

What does the concept of "decent work" mean and what is its importance?

The idea of "decent work" emerged when people began discussing the idea of globalisation with a social dimension. Globalisation will mean nothing for hundreds or millions of people if it has no social dimension. Increased unemployment and poverty as a result of today's world economic order is pushing many to accept jobs at whatever cost.

This prompted the ILO to launch this concept to make workers aware of their rights, which in turn would lead to their safety and increased productivity.

The ILO says that having decent work means that everybody can benefit from globalisation.

This concept reflects the main mandate of the ILO. It is a means to achieve social stability and peace nationally and on a global scale.

What are the pillars of the "decent work" concept?

"Decent work" promotes the importance of having a job, decent working conditions and salaries, social protection, social dialogue between the employer, employees and the government, and a discrimination-free work environment. These pillars are part of the ILO's Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalisation issued in Geneva in 2008.

How is this concept dealt with in Egypt?

We are developing a "decent work" country plan for Egypt which is centred upon social dialogue. This project was formally launched in June 2008. Much work has been achieved in Egypt since the adoption of the new Labour Law 12/2003, which is a cornerstone in promoting decent work. The implementation of the Decent Work Agenda in general has its difficulties. Each country approaches this agenda according to its economic and social structure. It is important to guarantee the will of the three key parties to dialogue: the Ministry of Manpower and Migration, the Federation of Egyptian Industries and the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). It is the role of the ILO to promote dialogue between the three parties to achieve real decent work in Egypt. It is a cumulative process.

But implementing it is not as smooth as planning it. Different elements are factored in. Nowadays, the financial crisis has its impact on the country and this impact means that the government has to prioritise certain issues. It has to develop certain programmes and allocate money for this purpose.

Is any of the three parties showing signs of reluctance?

To be objective, they are all in a way reluctant. Each has its own concerns and calculations. However, employers may have more concerns. But this reluctance is no obstacle. It can be tackled through discussion.

Why do we need social dialogue now?

During the past 25 years, and ever since the privatisation process started, Egypt's private sector has grown stronger to become a key main employer. It is telling that nine million workers in the private sector are not represented through trade unions. And the trade union movement in Egypt is totally concentrated in the publicly owned enterprises. In a state owned enterprise workers can negotiate and pressure the government to get what they want. In the private sector the situation is different. What we want to do is to build up a new tradition based on the new labour code, which stresses tripartism. You can find that it encourages dialogue and collective bargaining between workers and employers.

Do we need a change of regulations to allow for private sector labour unions?

It is not just a matter of regulation. It is part of the culture that employers feel trade unions are a threat. We need time, trust and mutual interaction between workers and employers.

To what extent do Egypt's laws conform to the ILO's conventions?

Egypt has ratified 64 conventions including the eight core conventions. There are some comments from our committee of experts which is in charge of following up the implementation after ratification. This committee has found out that the labour law refers to only one trade union, the ETUF. From the experts' point of view this is considered against Convention 87, one of the eight core conventions that mentions the right to organise. The ILO's committee of experts considers that a single union should not be imposed by law and workers can decide by themselves whether to have a single union or multiple unions.

In addition, in Egypt there are public sector workers, private sector workers and another group working informally which is huge in number, who should also be represented. From the ILO's point of view any worker should be protected. Having unions means that workers have a voice so they can be consulted. This will lead to improving their working and living conditions which has an impact on society in general. But it is a matter of the main parties deciding the limits of that change.

This issue is now being discussed. ETUF President Hussein Megawer has in fact declared on more than one occasion that the federation is working together with the minister of manpower and migration on amending the trade union law.

How do you explain the increase in the number of strikes in Egypt recently?

That has a simple and direct explanation: when you do not have social dialogue then what other options do you have? Social dialogue is the mechanism to settle disputes and to discuss all the issues that can arise, in a very democratic way. When you have more freedom, all the social groups can express their views using different ways. This is where social dialogue comes in. Any issue can be discussed and should be discussed before going out onto the street. For this reason when we talk about social dialogue we talk about integrating everybody to discuss issues of common interest to find solutions which are suitable for everybody and which everybody can defend.

How do you see the issue of unemployment in Egypt?

I have met many employers who claim to have vacancies which workers are not accepting. Employers need their workers to have certain qualifications, but they cannot find the right candidates. This situation reveals many problems, foremost among which is the level of education and training.

A second problem is the type of vacancy being offered. Is it a decent one and does it offer a decent salary? In order to develop our training skills, education system, the output of universities or develop the remunerations from jobs offered, we need to have social dialogue. Employers should stop complaining about the qualification of workers and think about improving their skills.

How can the salaries be amended through social dialogue, either in the private or public sectors?

The Higher Council for Wages mentioned in the Labour Law 12/2003 is the solution. And this should be discussed through a social dialogue which brings together the employers, employees and the government.

In light of today's economic slowdown, do Egyptians have the luxury to find decent work?

According to the ILO any work and any job should be decent. The United Nations Development Programme report about Egypt showed discrepancies between the rural and the urban areas. There are about 40 villages in Upper Egypt that are described as the poorest in the country. So when we go for a decent work agenda here, it should be a gradual one. I think this is the target of the Ministry of Manpower as well. The economic crisis may not be a good time to discuss this issue, but it is something that Egypt should work on. It is not a matter of choice from our point of view. When we talk about descent work we are talking about greater social justice, and a more stable society.

But to what extent can dialogue succeed in light of the fact that there is a lack of information?

It needs cooperation from all parties as well as social and political will. All should be convinced that sharing information will result in an improved situation for the country and its people.

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