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Parliament issues amendments to trade union law

While a new law regulating Egypt’s labor unions has yet to be issued, a majority of parliamentarians voted in favor of four amendments to the trade union law on Tuesday.

Critics of the amendments argue that they were specifically tailored to fit the interests of the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and its leadership. This view is largely based on the fact that the ETUF’s leadership controls the Manpower Committee in Parliament, which drafted the four amendments.

The amendments have been seen as a way to protect the privileges of the ETUF and its state-appointed leadership. One of them stipulates that terms of office for the ETUF’s leadership are extended by six months, even though their terms had expired in 2011, and its leaders have been appointed by the Minister of Manpower for the past five years.

Ahead of parliamentary elections in late 2015, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had issued a one year extension for the ETUF’s leadership in May 2015, which expired two months ago.

The amendment adds that ETUF leaders are to remain in office for the next six months, or until a new law is issued to regulate the upcoming trade union elections, if it is ratified before the end of the extension.

The second amendment stipulates pushing back the age of retirement for trade union leaders past the age of 60. Itwas drafted and presented by Parliament’s Manpower Committee, which is presided over by ETUF President Gebali al-Maraghi and his deputy, Mohamed Wahballah. Local media outlets pointed out that Maraghi is due to turn 60 within two months, and that Wahballah is five months away.

This amendement turned back the provisions of Presidential Decree 97/2012, issued by former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in November 2012, which stipulated that ETUF leaders over the age of 60 are to retire, to allow younger union leaders to take charge.

“This amendment is a clear indicator that Maraghi, Wahballah and their likes intend on staying in office indefinitely, and that they want the old guard to continue ruling over Egypt’s unions” said worker Mahmoud Farid at an independent labor conference organized on Tuesday to discuss the changes to the trade union law.

A third amendment also deals with retirement, stating, “If an affiliate or board member from any one of the ETUF’s general unions is referred to retirement from their work — due to old age or disability — they may still maintain their memberships in this general union, if they continue to pay their union dues.”

Retired workers who continue to pay their dues also have “the right to vote, to nominate themselves to union leadership posts, and to hold office in light of elections,” the amendment adds.

Finally, a fourth amendment stipulates that “if an ETUF board member is replaced, for any reason, their seat shall pass on to the candidate who had won the second highest number of votes” (according to the results of the ETUF elections of October-November 2006.) As for cases “whereby an ETUF board member has won their seat through default elections (in which there was no other competing candidate) the board shall continue to function without a replacement, except in those cases where the seats of two-thirds of the board members have been left vacant.” If two-thirds of an ETUF board’s seats are left vacant, then a general assembly is to be held within 30 days to appoint people to the positions.

The four amendments to Egypt’s forty-year-old trade union law (Law 35/1976) havebeen published in local news outlets, but not yet in the Official Gazette.

Attending Tuesday’s labor conference at a hotel in downtown Cairo, dozens of worker activists and independent trade unionists argued that the parliamentary Manpower Committee had drafted all these amendments in secrecy, without conferring with Egypt’s workers or their organizations.

Kamal Abbas, the director of the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS) and the coordinator of this labor conference, argued that “representatives of independent unions were completely excluded from the drafting process.”

Participants at the conference also pointed to the ETUF’s efforts to outlaw independent trade unions altogether, in the form of a lawsuit filed before the Administrative Court in February to ban all unions which do not fall under the umbrella of the state-controlled federation.

In June, this lawsuit, along with the trade union law, were subsequently referred to the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) in order to review the constitutionality of four of the provisions of this law that pertain to the right to establish workers’ organizations.

“The four articles are still in the process of being reviewing by the SCC. Yet ETUF and its lawmakers in Parliament have the right to issue amendments to the law, even if this case is still before the SCC,” said Khaled Ali, director of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), whose lawyers are defending the right to establish independent unions.

“However, if the ETUF choses to issue amendments to the four articles in question – all of which pertain to the right to establish independent unions or federations – then we have the right to appeal against the new draft on the basis of its constitutionality,” he added.

Established by the state in 1957, ETUF has virtually monopolized Egypt’s labor union movement for the past 59 years. It has actively opposed the establishment of independent unions – referring to them instead as “parallel unions” – since their first emergence in late 2008.

At least two federations of independent unions have emerged in Egypt since the popular uprising of 2011. Later that year, a draft trade union law – dubbed “The Trade Union Liberties Law” – was formulated to replace Law 35/1976, and to uphold the right to freedom of association. However, this law was repeatedly shelved by executive authorities and was never issued.

Partaking in Tuesday’s independent labor conference, MP Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat commented, “The Egyptian Constitution of 2014 is clear in its provisions,” which safeguard the right to freely establish unions, as outlined in Article 76.

This article states, “The law shall guarantee the right to establish syndicates and unions on a democratic basis,” adding that the state will “guarantee the independence of syndicates and unions.”

ASadat concluded by saying that Egypt’s independent unions “have the support of several parliamentary members,” including himself. This MP claimed that “these parliamentarians will hold dialogue sessions with unions and civil society groups in hopes of realizing our dreams, aspirations and rights.”

Sadat, along with another MP, Salah Eissa, signed on to the Trade Union Liberties Law at Tuesday’s labor conference, and claimed that they would strive to revive this draft law in Parliament.

Focusing on Parliament-related news, privately owned Parlamany website reported that from a total of 435 MPs,  399 voted for the amendments to the trade union law on Tuesday, with 15 voting against it.