Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1373, (14 - 20 December 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1373, (14 - 20 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

New terms on labour

Egypt’s new trade union law was approved by parliament this week, despite criticisms from some observers who have pointed to various flaws, reports Beesan Kassab


Parliament last week approved Egypt’s new labour unions law, which triggered criticisms from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the World Federation of Trade Unions and the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions while it was being discussed, with critics saying that the new law restricts union activities and freedom.  

The ILO has long “blacklisted” Egypt because it says that it restricts freedom of association guaranteed by ILO Convention 87/1948 that states that workers and business owners, without discrimination, have the right to form and join organisations of their choice without prior authorisation as long as they abide by the bylaws of these organisations.

Under the ILO Convention, labour unions have the right to decide their administrative bylaws, elect their leaders freely, regulate their administration and activities, and draw up their plans of action. “The public authorities must not interfere to limit these rights or obstruct their legitimate application,” the Convention says.

The debate over Egypt’s new labour law, which will replace Law 35/1976, revolves around issues such as trade union pluralism, which means the presence of more than one trade union for each profession, not necessarily affiliated to the state, provided that workers and employees have the right to join any such unions without restrictions.

The new law, unlike the previous one, guarantees this right, “but it remains theoretical due to restrictions in the new law that obstruct the actual exercise of it,” according to Fatemah Ramadan, a former member of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions.

These restrictions include the quorum needed to form a federation of trade unions other than the General Federation of Egyptian Workers which already exists, namely that it should include 10 general trade unions with a minimum of 200,000 members. Fifteen union committees must also be formed with at least 20,000 members each in order to form a general trade union.

Ramadan believes that stipulating a minimum number of members constitutes interference in the rights of workers to associate, but MP Khaled Shaaban, a member of the parliament’s Labour Committee, said that he had pressured the committee to lower the number originally wanted by the Ministry of Labour.

“The original draft of the law required 20 general unions to have a minimum of 30,000 members each,” Shaaban said.

He said that on principle there should be a minimum number of members before labour unions can be formed, as “otherwise there could be an endless number of organisations, which would undermine union action.”

He rejected the idea that uniting or disuniting labour action was the responsibility of workers themselves, since the working class in Egypt does not have the expertise to exercise the right to form associations without restrictions, Shaaban said.

Another feature of the new law that has drawn the attention of critics is the fact that it stipulates a “pyramid” structure for any trade union in order to unify the internal organisation of each by force of law. This means that each union must have several management levels, with those near the top of the pyramid enjoying more authority.

Ramadan believes that this contradicts union freedoms. The new law also states that the general trade union federation must be composed of representatives from all professional syndicates.

“The natural course would be for unions to be given complete freedom to decide their own internal structures,” Ramadan said. “The pyramid structure separates the base from the management, shielding the latter from accountability. The ILO Convention prohibits signatories from violating the stipulations of the convention or applying laws that violate these stipulations.”

However, Shaaban said that if workers were allowed to choose the structure of their unions, they would still choose a hierarchical structure in the end.

A third problem of the new law is its exclusion of members of the Armed Forces, police, and “other regulatory bodies” from the right to associate and to form a union.

While this does not contradict the ILO Convention, which states that “state laws and regulations decide when to apply this Convention to the armed forces and police,” the new law does not distinguish between army and police officers and soldiers on the one hand and civilians working at the ministries of interior and defence on the other, according to Ramadan.

She warned that the new law could be used against the trade unions of workers working for the navy, for example, who were not themselves members of the Armed Forces, because they would still be working for the Ministry of Defence. The law could also stop workers working for the civil registration system from forming a union, since this is affiliated to the Ministry of Interior.

“The draft law excludes ‘regulatory bodies’ without properly defining them, allowing the manipulation of the law to ban whole sectors from the right to associate,” Ramadan said. However, Shaaban doubted that the government would abuse this stipulation.

“I believe ‘regulatory bodies’ is always an ambiguous term. Government representatives during parliamentary debates on the new law said the term meant entities such as the General Intelligence, which is why the term was undefined in case other such bodies were created in the future,” he said.

The same clause of the new law includes a list of sectors where workers are allowed to form unions, but it excludes retirees who are already members of an existing syndicate or union, making their future unclear, Ramadan said.

A fourth possible shortcoming of the new law is its bias towards the existing Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and possible conflicts of interest. The new law states that labour organisations formed in compliance with the law will maintain possession of their property and continue to operate, while others must become compliant with the new law before they can enjoy recognition by the state.

Accordingly, only members of the ETUF will have state recognition as it was formed by Law 35/1976, while other unions may not automatically receive such recognition. Many of them are independent syndicates formed after the 25 January Revolution according to the declaration of freedom of association made in March 2011 by then labour minister Hassan Al-Boraai and signed by ILO Director-General Juan Somavia.

A handful of independent syndicates also forced themselves onto the scene before the Revolution based on the ILO Convention, including the independent Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Employees in 2008, and these were strongly opposed by the ETUF at the time.

Ramadan said that giving the ETUF preferential treatment in the new law was flagrant interference by the state in the union movement and bias towards a specific association. However, Shaaban said that the minister of labour had promised during discussions in parliament that the statutes of the independent unions held by the ministry would be automatically revised.

If they were compliant with the new law, these unions would be allowed to continue to operate, he said.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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