Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1167, (3 - 9 October 2013)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1167, (3 - 9 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Workers’ rights under attack

Is Egypt heading for an anti-labour constitution, asks Faiza Rady

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“As far as workers’ rights are concerned the proposed draft of amendments to the Muslim Brotherhood’s 2012 constitution is anti-labour,” says Kamal Abbas, Coordinator of the Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) and a member of the National Council for Human Rights. Abbas was addressing a roundtable debate on social and economic rights and trade union freedoms in the constitutional draft, held on Sunday, 29 September at the Journalists’ Syndicate.

A committee of 50, representing many sectors of Egyptian society, is currently preparing the draft constitution that will eventually be placed before the public in a referendum.

But, writes historian of Egyptian labour Joel Beinin,“the committee of 50 doesn’t include representatives of the newly formed free trade unions”.

“Delegates from the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), the Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress (EDLC) and the Permanent Congress of Alexandria Workers (PCAW) are all absent from the committee; its sole labour representative is a member of the ill-reputed, government-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).”

The Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) was established in 1957 by Gamal Abdel-Nasser as an arm of the state. Its function was to control the workers’ movement.

“Its leadership has always been firmly in the hands of the ruling party, whatever its ideology or name,” writes Beinin. Official figures put Egypt’s labour force at 27 million. Four million are public sector workers affiliated with ETUF. The workers have no choice in the matter. Their membership is part of their employment package. Dues are automatically deducted from their wages. ETUF blatantly contravenes the provisions of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention No. 87 regarding workers’ fundamental right to form and join organisations of their choice, even if these are outside the existing trade union structure.

“The anachronistic survival of the ETUF continues to deny four million public sector and government workers the right to freely organise, while domestic service workers are by law prohibited from organising,” El-Sayed Habib a veteran workers’ rights activist from the Gazl al-Mahalla textile mill, told Al-Ahram Weekly. These provisions constitute yet another violation of ILO Convention No.87, article two of which stipulates that freedom of association is an unalienable workers’ right “without distinction whatsoever”.

Throughout its history ETUF has opposed labour strikes.

“ETUF opposed all but one of the strikes that occurred during the past 15 years,” says Beinin, a significant record given that between 2006 and 2012 an estimated three million workers participated in some three thousand strikes.

“For the working class the constitutional draft is like taking a step forward and a step backward, which takes us nowhere,” says Abbas. “It may constitute an improvement over the Brotherhood’s constitution by guaranteeing public freedoms,civil rights and the effective separation of powers but the same cannot be said of articles addressing industrial action, freedom of association and economic and social rights. Take article 14, which is catastrophic. The article starts out by stating that ‘peaceful industrial actions like strikes and sit-ins are inherent labour rights’, which is all well and good, but then it empowers legislators to regulate such action. In essence article 14 replicates the Brotherhood’s article on the subject, granting legislators the authority to define the margins of industrial action.”

Labour Law No. 12/2013 purported to address revolutionary demands: in fact its text criminalises strikes under the cover of “attempts to delay production”.It denies workers’ the right to strike that is guaranteed under international ILO conventions to which Egypt is a signatory.

“If it gets tiresome to reiterate the same things it is nonetheless crucial,” says Ahmed El-Naggar, director of economic studies at Al-Ahram’s Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “The aforementioned ILO conventions did not somehow descend on us from Mars. They were signed by various Egyptian governments. To prevent violations it is imperative that the text of the constitution display clear and unambiguous commitment to enforcing the articles of each and every international convention signed by an Egyptian government. These should in practice supersede any standing labour legislation. This would put an end to the historic strategy of referring the article to legislators who have historically served state interests.”

“Aside from its non-reference to binding international labour conventions, the constitutional draft is in many ways more deficient than its predecessor. Characterised by fluid and elastic language, its text appearsformulated to create ambiguity.Take the right to work, which is presumably based on the state’s vision of job-creating economic programme. Article 23 says that ‘the Egyptian economy is based on promoting the growth of economic activity and encouraging investment’. Yet nowhere does the text define the state’s economic role and responsibility to create and/or promote jobs that provide work to the unemployed. Flowery language notwithstanding, the right to work is absent from the draft.”

The same applies to articles addressing social security and welfare benefits, pensions and public health and education programmes: all are rich in rhetoric, all shirk spelling out tangible state commitments, says El-Naggar. The constitutional draft fails to link social security benefits to the minimum wage or state programmes to inflation. Instead, the open-ended text leaves the provision of fundamental rights to discretionary and flexible state budgets and the political will of whatever government is in power.

“In terms of workers’ gains the constitutional draft couldn’t be worse,” says Habib. “There is a false perception among the public that the draft privileges the working class because it keeps the obligatory 50 per cent parliamentary representation of workers and peasants from earlier constitutions. What they don’t realise is that we make up at least 70 per cent of Egypt’s people. In real terms the 50 per cent falls short of representing us.”

Yet workers remain upbeat. “The roundtable provided a fertile forum for discussion,” says Abbas. “We’ll formulate a proposal based on workers’ input and present it to the committee of 50. It is our duty to continue the struggle, not least for the sake of the hundreds of workers who were martyred during the revolution.”

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