Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Workers’ rights

A court ruling criminalising strike action because it contravenes Islamic law is denounced as an attack on constitutional guaranteed rights, reports Khaled Dawoud

Workers’ rights
Workers’ rights
Al-Ahram Weekly

A recent ruling issued by the Supreme Administrative Court that effectively outlaws strikes raises serious fears about the rights of workers to peacefully defend their interests.

The ruling attracted sharp criticism from labour and human rights activists for contravening article 15 of the constitution which states that “peaceful strikes are a right organised by the law” and for flying in the face of international treaties to which Egypt is a signatory. The court’s hitherto unprecedented ruling that practicing the right to strike “violates Islamic Sharia” has caused particular concern among activists.

In hearing a case involving 17 government employees from a small town in the governorate of Menoufiya who went on strike to protest their working conditions in June 2013, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that three should be sent into retirement and imposed lesser administrative penalties on the remaining defendants. The employees were “public servants,” the court argued, and in going on strike had deprived citizens of services they needed.

The court’s argument that its ruling was based on “Islamic Sharia”, and its insistence that withdrawing labour “goes against Islamic teachings and the purposes of Islamic Sharia”, raised the most eyebrows. Strikes by public servants, said the court, constituted “a crime” because in Islamic law “obeying orders by seniors at work was a duty.”

The court conceded that Egypt had signed international agreements that guarantee the right of workers to go on strike, but said that the government’s approval of the International Convention on Social and Economic Rights “is conditional on its consistency with Islamic Sharia”.

Former deputy prime minister Ziad Bahaaeddin branded the court’s linkage of strikes and Islamic law as incomprehensible.

“What is the relationship between Sharia and an issue such as workers’ strikes? And who said that going on strike is against Islamic teachings,” he asked.

Bahaeddin, who is deputy president of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said that the court’s reasoning contradicts any definition of a civilian state. “Courts should rule on the basis of the constitution and the law. Didn’t we demonstrate against the constitution drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood because it attempted to mix religion with the state?”

Egyptian courts have issued contradictory rulings on workers’ strikes over the decades. Under Hosni Mubarak State Security — renamed National Security following Mubarak’s ouster — maintained a tight grip on trade unions and ensured elected union leaders were loyal to the National Democratic Party. Yet whether courts ruled in support of the right to peaceful assembly and to strike guaranteed by the constitution, or judged them to be acts that threatened national security, there was no citing of Islamic law to justify the rulings.

Independent union activist and member of the National Human Rights Council Kamal Abbas says the ruling is “shocking” not only because of its religious reasoning but because it “clearly violates the constitution and undermines the basic principles of a civil state”.

The ruling, he adds, will weaken Egypt’s position in international labour organisations and fuel criticism of its human rights record.

“What we are witnessing is the retreat of all the gains we made as workers following the 25 January Revolution,” says Abbas.

“The government is once again bowing to pressure from the business community and issuing laws to serve their interests, pressing workers to accept deteriorating living conditions and even give up the right to peacefully strike.”

Abbas also warned that the government was delaying a law which would allow independent trade unions to be established and instead was “resorting to the Mubarak-era practice of policy of backing its placemen in the General Federation of Egypt Trade Unions (GFETU).”

The Supreme Administrative Court’s 28 April ruling came a day after President Abdel-Fatah Al-Sisi attended a Labour Day celebration alongside GFETU leaders and senior government officials. Unlike similar events under Mubarak, the venue was not a major state-owned factory or a stadium. Instead the celebration was held at the Police Academy.

During the course of the celebration Al-Sisi tried several times to calm down GFETU president Gebali Al-Maraghi and water down the lavish praise Al-Maraghi seemed determined to bestow.

Al-Sisi, said Al-Maraghi, was a hero and “Egypt’s saviour.”

“Mr. President,” he told the cheering audience, “you restored Egypt’s dignity in the world.”

Sisi replied that “it is the Egyptian people who restored Egypt’s dignity. There were millions who came out,” a reference to the mass demonstrations against Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Al-Sisi also objected to slogans chanted by some of the attendees claiming that “Egypt’s workers want to hang the Brotherhood and strike them with our shoes.”

“This is not proper,” said Al-Sisi. “We need to stress the rule of law and should not interfere in judicial rulings.”

At the end of the celebration Al-Maraghi handed Al-Sisi a copy of what he described as “the code of honour” of Egyptian workers. The second article of the codes states that “Egypt’s workers reject strike action and confirm their commitment to dialogue with the government and business owners as a mechanism to achieve social justice and stability.”

In an interview with the privately-owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, published on 30 April, also to mark the Labour Day, Al-Maraghi replied to a question about the outstanding demands of Egypt’s workers by stating: “Egypt workers have no demands. Our task is to carry out all the demands made by the president in his meeting with workers, increasing production and fighting terrorism.”

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