The ILO also lambasted the Egyptian authorities for their handling of investigations into the torture and murder of Italian PhD candidate Giulio Regeni, who was in Egypt researching and writing on the condition of the local independent labor movement prior to his death.
In a message directed at President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, ILO Director General Guy Ryder “expressed concern over threats to human and trade union rights in Egypt,” while calling for clear answers regarding Regeni’s brutal death.
Ryder also criticized the Egyptian government’s recent violations against independent unions, including restrictions on the publication of official documents, prohibiting their participation in collective bargaining and subjecting independent union organizers to the risk of layoffs, and even arrests.
“I wish to stress that it is the responsibility of the [Egyptian] government to ensure the application of the international labor conventions on freedom of association that it has freely ratified, and which must be respected by all state authorities,” Ryder argued.
But officials from the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) dismissively responded to the ILO’s criticisms.
The ILO statement “represents an unwarranted interference in Egypt’s affairs,” said ETUF President Gebali al-Maraghi, the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reported Sunday.
Maraghi further called for “the issuing of an official statement to condemn this intervention into the affairs of Egypt, or any other Arab state.”
As the UN’s labor agency, the ILO is officially entrusted with overseeing the implementation of international labor conventions that world states have voluntarily ratified. According to Ryder, these conventions are persistently violated in Egypt.
The ILO was established in 1919 — more than two decades prior to the establishment of the UN — and Egypt joined in 1936. Since then, Egypt has voluntarily ratified several of its conventions. However, Friday’s statement claimed that not only does the Egyptian state fail to enforce the conventions, but appears to actively violate them.
The current administration’s recent actions against Egypt’s independent trade unions include a lawsuit filed before an administrative court to outlaw and dissolve independent unions and federations, legislative threats against basic union rights from ETUF representatives in Parliament, and the appointment of the new Minister of Manpower Mohamed Saafan, a senior ETUF chief who largely opposes the organizational freedoms of unions. Critics also highlight the absence of ETUF elections, which are overdue since 2011, Sisi’s presidential decree to extend the ETUF leadership’s term of office, and the appointment of ETUF chiefs by the ministers of manpower for the past five years.
“For several years, the International Labor Organization has been calling upon the government to end discrepancies between existing national legislation, in particular as regards the Trade Union Act No. 35 of 1976, and ILO Conventions 87 and 98,” Ryder said.
In contravention to ILO Conventions 87 and 98, Egypt’s trade union law recognizes the existence of only one trade union federation — the ETUF — and holds that all labor unions must affiliate themselves to this state-controlled entity.
The ETUF has held a complete monopoly over the trade union movement since its formation in 1957. However, since the 2011 uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak, independent trade union federations have emerged to challenge its unilateral control.
Several bills have been presented since 2011 to replace the trade union law which would recognize independent unions and federations. However, they have repeatedly been shelved by consecutive governments, and the old union law still remains in effect.
“Since the International Labor Conference of 2008, requests have been made to [Egypt] to adopt a new trade union law in order to ensure full respect for freedom of association rights,” the ILO statement said.
Since 2008, the ILO had repeatedly placed Egypt on its shortlist of states which violate the organization’s conventions.
“The government of Egypt has committed that all trade unions in the country, including the independent trade unions, would be able to exercise their activities and elect their officers in full freedom in accordance with Egypt’s international obligations according to ILO Convention 87, pending the adoption of a new freedom of association law,” the ILO statement pointed out.
However, ETUF parliamentarians and the new minister of manpower appear to remain adamant on retaining those provisions of the trade union law that stipulate the state-controlled federation’s grip over the labor movement.
The ILO also referred to a previous statement issued by its governing body in March, entitled, “The Threat to Human and Trade Union Rights in Egypt.” The statement referred to “systematic attacks” by the Ministry of Manpower “against independent trade union organizations.”
The March statement then “expressed outrage about the death of Giulio Regeni,” who was researching trade unions and freedom of association in Egypt before he went missing on January 25, the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution.His dead body was found on February 3, bearing signs of torture.
The ILO Workers’ Group earlier called for an independent inquiry into Regeni’s torture and murder. However, Egyptian authorities have continued to withhold vital information and communications from Italian prosecutors and investigators.
The ILO’s director general issued an emphatic call for the Egyptian government to “expeditiously clarify all the facts surrounding the death of Mr. Regeni.”
In mid-February, the ETUF issued a statement expressing its “great sorrow for the killing of the Italian student.”
However, the ETUF statement also dismissed claims that Egyptian security forces may have been implicated in Regeni’s disappearance and death.
“ETUF refuses this harsh attack against Egypt conducted by foreign organizations supported by illegal organizations in Egypt, that try to manipulate the event to disseminate their poisons to attack stability in Egypt,” the statement said.
“ETUF is stressing that Egyptian workers are fully aware of the plots against their country conducted by foreign or local plotters,” it concluded. “We Egyptian workers are one front against any illegal organizations’ plots.”