Egypt eases restrictions on trade unions to avoid international censure

Cairo fell afoul of the International Labour Organisation in 2017 when the Egyptian parliament passed a law considered a violation of the standards of the world labour body.
Saturday 27/07/2019
Adjusting course. Egypt’s Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel A′al speaks during a general session in the capital Cairo. (AFP)
Adjusting course. Egypt’s Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel A′al speaks during a general session in the capital Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO - Egypt has amended its trade unions law to give greater freedoms to the unions and evade censure by world labour bodies, including the International Labour Organisation.

Cairo fell afoul of the International Labour Organisation in 2017 when the Egyptian parliament passed a law considered a violation of the standards of the world labour body. That measure institutionalised the government-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) as the country’s sole union body.

The law set membership requirements for independent trade unions that made it difficult for them to develop and operate effectively. It also prevented trade unions from determining their own rules and structures. The law banned independent unions from receiving international support, limited their financial independence, imposed eligibility requirements for election to union executive committees and required the presence of government officials during union elections.

The International Trade Union Confederation, the world’s largest trade union body, described the law as “a flagrant violation of the fundamental right of workers to organise.”

“The law was restrictive in all senses of the word,” said Shaaban Khalifa, president of the Private Sector Workers’ Union, which defends the rights of the private sector workers. “It criminalised labour trade union freedoms and deprived the workers of defending their own rights.”

However, amendments introduced to the law July 11 completely change the process, including reducing membership requirements for independent trade unions to 50, instead of 150 in the former version. The amendments allow trade unions to determine their own structure and by-laws, remove control by the ETUF and end restrictions on the elections of the trade unions. The amendments also replace imprisonment with fines for trade unionists and employers who commit violations against it.

“These amendments are revolutionary in all senses of the word,” said Solaf Darwish, a member of the Labour Committee in the Egyptian parliament. “They go hand in hand with Egypt’s commitments to international labour conventions.”

Egypt is a signatory to many labour conventions, including the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention of 1957 and the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention of 1948.

The amendments mesh with the 2014 constitution, which allows establishment of trade unions and federations on the basis of democratic principles. The constitution allows unions to have legal personality, freely conduct activities, contribute to enhancing the skills of members, protect rights and defend members’ interests.

The constitution makes it necessary for state authorities to guarantee the independence of the trade unions and federations whose

governing bodies cannot be dissolved other than by court rulings.

The ETUF had manipulated the Egyptian labour scene for decades, acting as the government’s arm to ensure the compliance of the unions and their members.

Independent trade unions started appearing, soon after the 2011 popular uprising that ended the authoritarian rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

After the revolution, hundreds of trade unions appeared but they were denied legal recognition by the law, which set off a long struggle by labour activists against the law.

Parliament’s approval of amendments to the Trade Unions Law came as Egypt began what some people view as a charm offensive to win approval from major international bodies.

On July 14, the Egyptian parliament approved a new civil society law that ends restrictions in the old law, including on membership, financing and activities.

Amendments to the Trade Unions Law faced considerable opposition from legislators with business interests. Critics said easing the formation of trade unions would not serve the interests of employers.

Some labour activists also object to the amendments because they view them as not offering enough freedoms for the trade unions.

“I cannot say that these amendments satisfy the aspirations of everybody,” said Emad Hamdi, director of the Chemical Factory Workers’ Union. “The implementation of the amendments will prove whether they are enough but we will struggle for more freedoms if they prove otherwise.”

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