Last Updated: Monday, 14 July 2014, 11:42 GMT

2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Egypt

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 20 November 2008
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Egypt, 20 November 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c52ca9432.html [accessed 14 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 75,500,000
Capital: Cairo
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

Workers repeatedly defied the government by organising protest actions which were considered "illegal", basically because they had not been approved by the government-backed Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). The Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), a civil society organisation actively engaged in upholding labour rights and promoting an independent trade union movement, was closed down by the authorities and its leader sentenced to one year in prison.

Trade union rights in law

Single national centre: The right to form and join trade unions is heavily curtailed in law. There is a minimum membership requirement of at least 50 employees in the same enterprise, and unions can only operate if they join one of the 23 industrial federations. All of these have to belong to the only legally recognised trade union centre, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which has close relations with the NPD, the ruling party. The ETUF has the power to control the nomination and election procedures for trade union office.

Workers acting outside the scope of the ETUF can be (and are) sacked if the employer learns of their organising activities, as the 2003 labour law makes it legal for an employer to fire someone without giving any reason.

The law specifies how much unions have to pay to federations in affiliation fees and how much the federations have to pay the national centre.

"High administrative officials" in government and public sector enterprises may not join unions.

Unions barred from engaging in political activities: Regulations under the Civil Societies and Institutions Law bar national groups registered as civil companies, including trade unions, from being involved in political activities. This blanket prohibition is contrary to the principles of freedom of association.

Collective bargaining curtailed: There is very little scope for collective bargaining in the private sector. Companies must comply with certain government-established standards, particularly in relation to the minimum wage, social security and official public holidays.

Under the 2003 labour law, a collective agreement is only valid if it complies with the law on public order or general ethics. The ILO Committee of Experts has asked for a definition of "general ethics".

Pentagonal Committees adjudicate disputes: "Pentagonal committees" made up of government representatives, employers and workers' associations have been set up to adjudicate in labour disputes, and during 2005 they received over 250,000 complaints, and issued verdicts in 10% of the cases.

Unions' ability to strike still virtually non-existent: The new legislation permits a limited form of strike action, but only if two-thirds of the ETUF board agrees. The union must then give a ten-day notice period and indicate the planned duration of the strike. Unions have the right to strike in "non-strategic" installations, but the Prime Minister determines which these are and can also prevent strikes in strategic sectors, the list of which exceeds the ILO definition of essential services by including, for example, transport and bakeries. Union executive board members can be removed if their union has carried out a strike or absenteeism in the public sector. Unions cannot call a strike during mediation or arbitration procedures and the ETUF has the power to approve the organisation of a strike.

Special Economic Zones (SEZ) Law: The 2002 Special Economic Zones Law laid the legal foundation for setting up export-oriented SEZs. Newly established investment companies in the zones are exempted from complying with legal clauses relating to labour organising, thus depriving workers of the right to set up local union committees.

Trade union rights in practice and Violations in 2007

The Minister of Manpower and Migration oversees and monitors collective negotiations and agreements. The government sets wages, benefits and job classifications for public sector and government employees.

In the private sector, where ETUF representation is weak, employers are not interested in collective bargaining, and do not even respect government requirements or rulings on the minimum wage, social security and other issues.

Judicial supervision imposed on many professionals' unions: Since the mid 1990s, when independent candidates won the unions' council elections, the government has imposed judicial supervision over many unions representing professional groups, such as doctors, engineers, lawyers and pharmacists.

Many irregularities in union elections: The Centre for Trade Union and Workers' Services (CTUWS) reports many irregularities during the country's trade union elections in 2006, including withholding certificates of trade union membership, removing candidates' names from lists, threatening trade unionists and forcing workers to tear up candidates' documents to prevent union committees being formed.

Special Economic Zones: The private employers in Egypt's Special Economic Zones show very little respect for labour rights. Most workers in the Tenth of Ramadan City zone are forced to sign letters of resignation before beginning employment so that they can be fired at the employers' convenience. Working conditions are very bad, with long hours, low pay and poor safety standards, but it is difficult for labour activists to do anything about it, given the restrictions on collective bargaining and the ban on strikes.

Workers mobilise against privatisation: Hundreds of protest actions took place throughout the year in the wake of the successful strike held in December 2006 at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, Egypt's largest industrial firm, which employs 27,000 workers and is based in Mahalla el Kubra, north of Cairo. The driving force behind this protest movement was not only concern over privatisations, job losses, low wages, poor working conditions and the high cost of life, but also workers' determination to be represented by genuinely independent unions, free from government interference.

Workers' delegation from Mahalla stopped by police: On 15 April, police in the city of Mahalla repeatedly prevented a group of some 100 workers of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company from travelling to the ETUF headquarters in Cairo. The delegation was once again calling for the dismissal of the leaders of the company union, whom they consider management stooges. They had already put forward this demand in January, soon after their successful strike action.

Serious charges brought against strikers: In the first few months of the year, "illegal" strikes broke out in dozens of enterprises. There were no violent incidents and no arrests. Alarmed at the possible consequences of this wave of protests, most employers, both public and private, quickly accepted at least some of the demands put forward by the workers. Little by little, however, the authorities hardened their stance. They accused the strikers of receiving support from the political opposition and the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist movement. The Labour Minister also treated the strikers like agitators and warned them that the situation could not be allowed to continue.

CTUWS offices closed by authorities: On 25 April, the Minister for Social Solidarity ordered the closure of the CTUWS headquarters, which are located in Helwan, an industrial suburb of Cairo. Two regional offices – one of them in the town of Naga Hammadi (south), where several large industrial plants are located, and the other in the town of Mahala (Nile Delta), which is a major textile centre – had already been shut down by the police. Founded in 1990, the CTUWS is a civil society association which upholds labour rights and strives to improve working conditions and promote independent trade unionism and social dialogue. Its activities especially target the most vulnerable categories of workers, such as women and workers in the informal economy. However, in the eyes of the authorities, the CTUWS is linked to the social movements which have emerged in recent months and which they believe threaten the country's stability.

Registration as NGO denied to CTUWS: In August the authorities refused to recognise the CTUWS officially as an NGO, on the basis of Article 11 of Law 84 of 2002, which prohibits associations from engaging in trade union or political activities. CTUWS is therefore still registered as a "civil company".

Heavy penalties for CTUWS Coordinator Kamal Abbas and his lawyer: On 11 October, CTUWS Coordinator Kamal Abbas and his lawyer, Mohamed Helmy, were both sentenced to a year in prison. They were prosecuted following the publication – in the May issue of the CTUWS newsletter, "Kalam Sinaï'ia" (Workers' Voice) – of a report on the official inquiry into financial and administrative irregularities in the affairs of a youth centre in 15 May City (Cairo). The judgment was pronounced on the basis of Article 188 of the Criminal Code, which provides for prison sentences and fines for anyone who "maliciously publishes information, statements or untruthful rumours liable to disturb the peace". A few days earlier, however, the plaintiff, Mohamed Mustapha Ibrahim, President of the Board of Directors of the youth centre and member of the National Democratic Party (NDP) in power, had been forced to resign from his post after an internal inquiry had established the existence of the above-mentioned corrupt practices.

Five "ringleaders" arrested in Mahalla: On 24 September, security forces arrested five trade union activists of the Misr Helwan Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra. One day earlier, the textile giant had been brought to a standstill by a strike in which almost all of the company's 27,000 employees took part. The charges brought against the five union leaders – who were released next day – included incitement to strike, unlawful gathering and destruction of public assets. Mohamed Al Attar, one of the released leaders, told the Daily News Egypt that "the way unions are organised in this country is completely wrong, from top to bottom. They are organised so as to make people believe that our representatives are elected by us, when in fact they are appointed by the government." The strike was called in protest against the government's failure to fulfil the promises made in December 2006, including higher wages, the payment of bonus arrears, and the provision of travel and healthcare benefits. Work resumed on 30 September, following the conclusion of an agreement. At year's end, however, the agreement had only been partially implemented.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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