Population: 74,900,000
Capital: Cairo
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

The right to form and join trade unions is heavily curtailed by law, and workers not belonging to the ETUF are sacked if an employer hears of union activities. Unions' ability to strike is virtually non-existent, and the government has sequestrated many sectoral organisations. The engineers were barred from their own general assembly. The government, with the connivance of the ETUF, took strong measures to prevent the candidates it disapproved of from standing in trade union elections, or from being elected.

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 societies, 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: A limited form of strikes are permitted, 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. The leader of the doctors' professional trade federation stated that "Egyptian culture has evolved to the point where labour protests are considered an inappropriate means of resistance".

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, depriving workers of the right to set up local union committees.

Trade union rights in practice

The Minister of Manpower and Migration (MOMM) 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.

Government 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, 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.

ETUF invites security officers to meetings: Unions have found that the federations or the ETUF have deemed industrial action illegal, and have refused to represent them. In one case, the ETUF invited state security officers to attend a meeting between the ETUF General Secretary and a union delegation.

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.

Violations in 2006

Background: According to a report by Joel Beinin, director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo, there were more than 220 strikes in Egypt in 2006, which he termed "the longest and strongest wave of worker protest since the end of World War II."

Security forces bar engineers from own assembly: On 17 May security forces barred engineers from attending the Engineers' Syndicate's general assembly to vote in union elections as soldiers occupied the streets surrounding the building where the assembly was to be held.

The date for the general assembly had been set for May after a high court decision ordering that the government sequestration imposed since 1995 be lifted. The engineers accused 93-year old Ahmed Moharram, the court-appointed custodian, of having allowed financial and administrative corruption to reach its peak during the 10 year period.

Government control over union elections: During October and November, when elections were scheduled for national trade union elections, the government, through the ETUF, took many measures to filter out candidates it considered unsuitable, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The measures taken included imposing arbitrary restrictions on candidates' rights to stand, treating candidates unequally and not allowing them to communicate with voters or to broadcast their election programmes. Some candidates were threatened or physically attacked. This happened on countless occasions, and some typical cases are given below.

Candidates barred from standing for union elections: Mohamed Hafiz Fikry, who works in the Qena Health Administration tried to nominate himself for the trade union branch committee, but was informed that his name did not appear on the state security list of potential candidates. After he ignored this and registered as a candidate, his name was removed from the list by the Ministry of Manpower.

When he tried to apply again, state security threatened him with arrest and detention. He was forced to go into hiding.

Mohamed Abu Samra, a member of the Trade Union Committee of the Seaport Authority of Alexandria and Board Member of the General Trade Union of Sea Transport, was deprived of the right to stand again since he had been expelled by the ETUF a month before the elections.

When he obtained a court order allowing him to stand, he was transferred to a different location and to a different job.

Security forces outside ETUF building: On 21 October security forces lined up in front of the ETUF building and erected metal barriers to prevent people entering the building to register as candidates.

Beaten up for allowing union candidate to register: On 28 October, Rabee Idris, an employee at the Ministry of Manpower's Labour Relations Office was beaten up by detectives from state security and taken to an unknown place because he allowed a trade union member of the Misr Petroleum company to register without his identity card.

Security forces intimidate workers registering: On the same day, security forces surrounded the building of the Manpower Administration of Shebin El Koom and barricaded the streets to check the papers of all union members registering for the elections. Those whose names were on the security lists were escorted by police to an unknown destination.

This 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.