Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1272, (26 November - 2 December 2015)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1272, (26 November - 2 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Not over yet

A recent study has shown that while Egypt’s labour movements have not been able to gain greater freedoms, they should not be written off just yet, reports Niveen Wahish

Al-Ahram Weekly

Earlier this month, textile workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, better known as the Ghazl Al-Mahalla, ended an 11-day strike to demand an annual 10 per cent increase in salary.

Over the summer, some employees of the Customs Authority, joined by other government employees, protested against the implementation of the new civil service law.

These were probably the only two major strikes to have taken place in Egypt throughout the year. This low frequency of strikes is a long way from the years immediately after the 25 January Revolution, when strikes were almost a daily occurrence.

A recent study has traced how the number of strikes has dropped over the past three years. Entitled “Low-Cost Authoritarianism: The Egyptian Regime and the Labour Movement Since 2013,” the study was authored by labour economist Fatima Ramadan and political economist Amr Adly for the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

It showed that although between 2004 and 2013 “Egypt witnessed a wave of labour strikes and protests unlike anything seen since the late 1940s,” by the second half of 2013 worker protests had declined sharply.

The protest movements that saw their peak with the 25 January Revolution were driven by many factors, according to the authors. These included the privatisation of state-owned enterprises after 2004, soaring oil and food prices, and other factors that led to the erosion of real incomes for millions of workers and middle-class Egyptians.

What changed in 2013 was not because of gains made in these areas, however. “Underlying grievances over wages, job security, and trade union freedoms, including the right to strike, persist,” the study said.

What has prompted the reduced number of strikes, according to the authors, has been the stepping up of penalties for protesting without a permit from the authorities. Calls to rally around the state have also been intensified in the face of rising terrorist attacks since mid-2013, and in a bid to achieve stability and attract investment.

The study says that since 2013 more measures have been adopted that place restrictions on independent trade unions, which had made some gains, starting in the mid-2000s. The Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), a state-affiliated organisation, has a legal monopoly on representing workers.

The state’s strategy against the labour movements has stayed consistent despite changing regimes since the 25 January Revolution, the study shows. It has depended on stalling tactics to prevent progress on freedom of association, and a draft bill on trade union liberties, first introduced after the revolution during the tenure of former minister of manpower Ahmed Al-Borai, has not yet seen the light.

Even temporary concessions made in the form of ministerial decrees recognising independent trade unions have later been revoked, the study says. The state has maintained the same legal framework, which only allows strikes after permission has been obtained from the ETUF — “an extremely unlikely prospect given the state’s domination of the Federation,” the study says.

The failure to allow Egyptian workers the right to organise freely could place the country back on the black list maintained by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) of states violating union rights.

Egypt was taken off the list in 2011 when the draft bill was suggested, but it was placed back on it again in 2013. In 2014, the Egyptian authorities managed to convince the ILO that the bill was on track and awaiting ratification by the parliament. It remains to be seen whether with a newly elected parliament in place the bill will eventually see the light.

Economists believe that allowing freedom of association ensures that workers’ grievances are well represented and provides for an organisation that can speak in their name in the event of differences with the government or business owners. This should decrease the chances of strikes, since differences can be resolved through dialogue, they say.

The workers’ right to strike is another major issue. Law 12 of 2003 contains many restrictions on industrial action, the study says, with Article 192 requiring the approval of two thirds of the general trade union’s board members before a strike can take place, even if no union is active in the company concerned. It also requires that employers and other relevant parties are notified 15 days before a strike.

Strikes are banned outright in strategic institutions listed in government decree 1185 of 2003, which covers almost all state enterprises, the study says. The law stipulates in Article 96 that any violation of these conditions can be grounds for dismissal.

The authors of the study believe that the future is not promising for Egyptian labour rights. The decline of the gains made by workers in the public and private sectors has also been evident in the draft labour law designed to replace Law 12 of 2003, they say.

The draft law allows employers to dismiss workers without taking the matter to court, as is the case under the current law, and without any other guarantees. It also increases the number of violations that constitute grounds for dismissal, the authors say, adding that the draft law places further restrictions on the right to strike and bans other forms of worker protest.

The long-term future of the labour and trade union movement in Egypt is not at all clear, the authors say, adding that workers have gained experience of demonstrating over the past decade, however.

Although independent trade unions have not been officially recognised, the authors say that such unions nevertheless exist on the ground and are still fighting in many places.

“These could become the nuclei for future real trade unions that defend the rights of their members, and whose loyalty lies solely with their base, the workers, rather than the state,” they write.

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