Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

On the ILO’s bad side

The new labour law will once again see Egypt on the International Labour
Organisation’s black list, writes Faiza Rady

Al-Ahram Weekly

“On black Thursday, 22 November, the same day President Mohamed Morsi issued the constitutional declaration granting him vast dictatorial powers and placing himself beyond the reach of the law he also signed the new labour bill into law,” says Kamal Abbas, coordinator of the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS) and a member of the Secretariat of the Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress (EDLC).
“Law 97/2012 avoided media scrutiny as attention focussed on the constitutional declaration and the public outrage that followed. Why did Morsi sign the bill on the same day when he had received it three weeks earlier? His timing was perfect. He slipped the new labour law through the back door.”
Abbas was addressing a 28 November labour meeting co-sponsored by the CTUWS and the EDLC, entitled “[Egypt’s workers say] no to the Muslim Brothers’ takeover of the trade unions”. The workers’ message was reiterated on banners hung on the meeting hall’s walls. “We demand an independent federation of trade unions”, “In the struggle against poverty and hunger, the right to strike is a legitimate right”, “We protest against ignorance, poverty and hunger”, read some of the slogans on the placards. An estimated 14.2 million Egyptians, 20 per cent of the population, live on less than $1 day, the extreme poverty line set by the International Monetary Fund. Tens of millions more live below the $2 per day global poverty line.  
“Law 97/2012 isn’t really a new law,” Abbas told Al-Ahram Weekly. “It’s a misnomer to designate it as such. This so-called new law is actually an amended version of the ill-reputed Law 35/1976 which formalised a situation that had existed since the Nasser regime when, in 1957, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) was established as an arm of the state. Its function was to control the workers’ movement. Throughout its history ETUF has opposed labour strikes.”
According to official figures, the Egyptian labour force totals some 27 million, four million of whom 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.
Even the Mubarak regime eventually saw the light. In 2010 they told the General Assembly of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that they would scrap Law 35/1976, though only after the ILO had blacklisted Egypt for violating conventions on freedom of association and the right to organise which the Egyptian government had ratified.  
“We’re back to square one,” says Abbas. “The refurbished law not only reconfirms ETUF’s status as an integral part of the state apparatus, it further extends government control over the federation. Clause 42 of the law, based on an amendment to law 35/1976, entitles the minister of manpower and migration to assign federation board members if and when vacancies on the board arise and cannot be filled through the recommendation of current members. What’s more, any recommendation has to meet the approval of the minister. Clause 42 places the federation’s leadership under more direct and immediate government control than the original version.”
“As always, the Brothers prepared the ground well in advance,” Adel Zakaria, editor of the CTUWS’s magazine Kalam Sinaiya — Workers’ Talk — told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Using as a pretext the popular demand to purge state institutions of Mubarak loyalists they decreed that federation board members over 60 should retire, opening up room for the minister Khaled Al-Azhari, a member of the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party, to appoint Brotherhood members to the vacancies. As a result, the federation’s board, like the boards of many government institutions, is now under their control.”
The CTUWS and the EDLC, with the support of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), had worked hard to counter the anti-labour stand of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Muslim Brotherhood. Established at the height of the 25 January Revolution EFITU incorporates 200 unions and has a membership of two million blue- and white-collar workers.
“Its most important affiliates are the Independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Workers — the first union to declare its independence from EFITU in December 2008 — and the newly established independent unions of teachers, the Cairo Public Transport Authority, Egypt Telecom, postal workers, pilots and aviation workers,” says Egyptian labour historian Joel Beinin.
Ahmed Al-Burai, Labour Minister under the Essam Sharaf government, drafted a law in consultation with the CTUWS, the EDLC and the EFITU allowing any group of 50 or more workers to organise, and made room for the formation of several unions in one workplace. But the draft was rejected by SCAF and later relegated to the back burner by the Islamist-dominated People’s Assembly.
“The Brothers aim to deny workers the right to form independent trade unions and instead are vying to infiltrate and gain control of all state institutions — with a special focus on the EFITU,” Al-Burai told the meeting. “They issued a new law, ostensibly to protect the revolution but which in fact criminalises strikes under the cover of ‘attempts to delay production’.”
“It is ironic that a law to protect the revolution is used to repress workers who were at the forefront of the struggle,” says Abbas. “Where were the Brothers when workers were staging thousands of protests against the Mubarak regime over the past 10 years? Don’t they know that it’s the workers’ militancy that paved the way to the 25 January? Where were they on 8 January 2011, when tens of thousands of workers went on strike across the country demanding that Hosni Mubarak step down? But you cannot get them to answer any question you pose. In lieu of an answer they’ll question your reasons for wearing a blue coat.”
“Blue coat and all, the workers remain upbeat,” says Sayed Habib, a veteran activist from the industrial town of Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra. “The revolution continues and the workers will prevail.”

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