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2009 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Egypt

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 11 June 2009
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2009 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Egypt, 11 June 2009, available at: [accessed 27 May 2018]
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

In April the police savagely repressed a workers' demonstration in the town of Mahalla. Six people were killed, 100 injured and 200 workers were arrested. Thirty-two women were sacked and beaten in a tobacco factory. There were two pieces of good news, however: after being persecuted for over a year, the Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) was able to resume activities in July and workers managed to set up an independent trade union within a department of the Finance Ministry, despite attempts at obstruction by the government-backed single national centre.

Trade union rights in law

A 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 non-commercial 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.

Legal strikes still virtually impossible: The 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 been responsible for 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 (SEZs) 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 2008

Background: A sharp rise in the price of basic goods led to the riots of 6 April, two days before totally one-sided municipal elections which the ruling party won with a crushing majority (92% of seats). In May, the authorities renewed the State of Emergency for another two years. While claiming to be a measure to fight terrorism, it has served over the last 20 years to stifle all political and social opposition.

Collective bargaining under government supervision or non-existent: 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.

Workers and union activists under attack by official organisations: Throughout the year, leaders of strike committees, former union leaders or simply activists, as well as several civil society organisations criticised the total lack of support by the official trade unions affiliated to the ETUF, and even hostility shown towards them. The Centre for Trade Union and Workers' Services (CTUWS) has repeatedly denounced manoeuvres by ETUF leaders to block any legislative reform on the operation of trade unions and NGOs, supposedly to defend "the uniqueness of the trade union structure".

Union activists in the textile industry sent a letter to the ILO during the International Labour Conference to denounce the ETUF's growing hostility towards their mobilising activities. Another workers' collective, the Egyptian Workers' Assembly (Tagammu') for Trade Union Reform, also sent a protest letter to Geneva concerning the contempt shown by the ETUF and its affiliated organisations for workers' legitimate demands, their authoritarianism and the sanctions taken against overly strident activists.

One case in point was the Iron and Steel Company, where Adel Haleem Atta Alla was punished (allowances cut by half and transfer to a different department) by management at the request of a representative of the official union, for leading a staff protest against the employers' decision to remove their right to health care. The Land Centre for Human Rights also reported that union activists working at the Labour Ministry were removed from office by their own leaders.

An end to the persecution of the CTUWS?: In February Kamal Abbas, the CTUWS coordinator, had the one year prison sentence handed down in October 2007 overturned by a court of appeal. On 30 March, the courts also cancelled all the administrative measures taken against the CTUWS in 2007. The government only fully restored the association's rights in July however. For over a year, this association created in 1990 to defend workers' rights, improve their working conditions and promote social dialogue and independent trade unionism had been targeted by the authorities: the CTUWS was refused registration as an NGO, its premises were closed down, its activities stopped and its national coordinator sentenced to prison.

Strike ban, bloody repression and arrests of union activists: On 6 April, a large detachment of police descended on the workers' town of Mahalla to force workers' representatives and opposition leaders to call off the strike at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, the biggest industrial enterprise in the country.

Incidents began on the evening of 6 April when thousands of angry workers and citizens of Mahalla came out onto the streets. The demonstrations were crushed with excessive violence by the police, leaving over 100 injured, some seriously. According to a report by the CTUWS, the police repression continued on 7 April, killing six people, including a 15-year-old. The government announced that over 500 people had been arrested, including 200 textile workers from Mahalla. Most of them were quickly released. Three trade union activists, Kamal el Fayoumy, Kareem el Beheery and Tarek Ameen were detained at the Burg al Arab prison. They received absolutely no support from the official union. They were released on 31 May, after 54 days in detention.

32 women workers beaten and dismissed: On 30 August in the town of Damanhour, 32 employees at the Al Hennawy Tobacco Factory were dismissed for "absenteeism" and beaten by police. Azhar Yussef Mesallim and Hanaa Ahmed Thabet were injured. Two days later, the women workers went to the local labour office to testify on behalf of Safaa Kandeel, one of their colleagues who had been sacked for tearing up company documents, which they say was not true, and for refusing to sign a recognition of debt.

Creation of the Independent General Union of Reta Workers (IGURW): Workers' representatives at the Real Estate Tax Authority (RETA) succeeded in setting up a union despite the legal obstacles and obstruction by the authorities and the ETUF leadership. A founding congress was held on 20 December, after years of intense activism. At the end of 2007, with no support from the official unions, 10,000 civil servants from the property taxation department carried out various protests to demand a pay review and the reinstatement of several members of the strike committee. Their action was successful: the Finance Ministry granted a 255% pay rise and the suspended activists were allowed to return to work. Trade unionists continued to be harassed by the authorities however, for example when collecting signatures for membership of the union. At the end of 2008, Kamal Abu Eita, Khaled Mubarak, Abdul Nasser Hussein and Mohamed Khalaf were still faced with several administrative sanctions for their trade union activities.

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.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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