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Labor union elections are back, but with few promises
Bureaucratic hurdles, political messages and a legal stand against hopes for liberated labor unions in Egypt
Independent unions strike outside ETUF in 2011

After 12 years of being postponed, labor union elections for 2018–2022 kicked off on May 23 and concluded this week under a law regulating union work, passed in late 2017, that ended, at least on paper, the state-affiliated Egyptian Trade Union Federation’s (ETUF) 61-year monopoly, and allowed for the formal creation of independent unions.

However, members and leaders of independent unions cite the legislation as among the primary obstacles to a free and fair election. “These were the worst labor elections Egypt has witnessed,” says Kamal Abbas, the head of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS), which organized a press conference on June 3 to raise the issue of election violations.

Members and leaders of independent unions, however, cite many obstacles to free and fair elections, among them the law itself governing the work of labor unions. “It was the worst labor elections Egypt has witnessed,” says Kamal Abbas, head of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS), which organized a press conference on June 3 to raise election violations.

One of the violations highlighted pertains to the ability of independent unions to regulate their legal status. While some independent unions have existed, predating the law for years, all of them now have to adhere to executive regulations in order to be recognized and ensure their members are eligible for elections.

CTUWS described the process of standardizing independent unions as “intransigent and bureaucratic practices from Ministry of Manpower directorates to prevent a right backed by law,” in a report titled, “Union freedoms — Between limited leeway and purposeful restrictions.”

Hamdy Ezz, head of the Independent Union for Tourism Workers in Cairo, works as a manager in a tourism company. In 2011, along with several colleagues, he founded a union to represent tourism employees from six cities in different governorates: Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, Hurghada, Sharm el-Sheikh and Safaga. Ezz applied to legalize the status of the union and its committees within 60 days from the issuing of the law’s executive regulations, on March 14, as stipulated.  Not all the papers of the committees were accepted, and only those of the Cairo and Giza unions were considered. Ezz presented papers to run for president of the Cairo union, and six others ran for council membership. On election day, however, they were not included on the initial candidate list announced by the Ministry of Manpower in haste.

“I went to the [Ministry of Manpower] and they told me they couldn’t find the folder and asked me to appeal. I appealed and asked when I would receive a response. They said Monday night [May 21]. I went with the other labour union leaders who had appealed to the stadium (where nomination requests were being accepted), and it was humiliating and a farce,” says Ezz.

Ezz and a number of other labor union leaders waited at the stadium for the announcement of their appeal for five hours. They were prevented from entering the designated hall, before being told by a security officer that the final list of candidates and appeals would not be announced that day, despite there only being a day until the start of the elections.

As voting in the first round of the elections got underway, Minister of Manpower and Immigration Mohamed Saafan said in statements to the press that “the large number of those running in union elections has created great pressure on ministry employees, which has strongly affected the delay of the elections roster.” But some labor organizers cited more than just bureaucratic hurdles imposed by the Ministry of Manpower.

Ahmed Abdallah, head of the union committee for education employees in East Mansoura, explains that the directorate of manpower refused to give them a formal receipt proving they had received their documents. Abdallah tells Mada Masr that a number of directorate employees asked him to join a union committee within the state-affiliated ETUF in order to formalize his status. This suggestion was repeated by one of the national security officers that called him in, because of Abdallah’s insistence on registering his committee.

Tarek Kaeeb, head of the general independent union for employees of the Real Estate Tax Authority, one of the first independent unions in Egypt, says the relevant directorates refused to receive the papers of 11 committees affiliated with his union. Only 14 of the committees affiliated with his union managed to formalize their status. This has led him to consider pursuing a lawsuit in order to register the others, as he considers many of the obstacles he faces to be the result of intervention by security agencies. Kaeeb says his union faced pressure to merge with the ETUF, a proposition he considers to be unacceptable.

Member of the CTUWS, Talal Shokr, says that the Ministry of Manpower wasted “12 days of the allocated two months for legalization before issuing a decision to start work, and its directorates closed on weekends, despite the ministry’s decision to work every day.” According to the center, only 108 independent union committees managed to register. “The directorates requested documents not listed in the regulations, such as proof of affiliation to the workplace and social insurance registration … [They] asked that the occupation be on the national IDs of applicants, which is impossible for informal labor,” Shokr explains, the result being that hundreds of independent unions did not legalize their status. Thirteen documents, including certificates of completed or exempted military service, were required from union representatives within a very short space of time, and the mechanisms for formal complaints to be made were flawed, Shokr adds.

“Those who presented their appeals to the labor elections committee have not received any response. The law prevented expedited appeals appearing before the State Council, and allowed appeals to appear before labor courts, which have not yet been established. Those who presented their appeals to the regular judiciary were given hearings in June, after the election date,” Shokr says. He maintains that the Egyptian government is “hostile to independent unions and their organization,” and, “does not aim to build a democratic union movement that represents its members and defends their rights.”

Labor activist Fatma Ramadan, however, says this is not the end of the matter. A meeting is anticipated between the government and representatives of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in a month to discuss ongoing issues. There have also been cases filed by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights against the union law and its executive regulations, in addition to appeals and formal complaints from labor candidates and unions.

The new act

The bureaucratic and security hurdles associated with labor union elections comes on the heels of a contested bill laying out structural impediments to what constitutes a union in the first place.

In December 2017, Egypt’s Official Gazette published the Trade Union and Protection of the Right to Association Act 213, which was conceived in response to persistent demands from local and international workers, activists, labor associations and unions for the drafting of a bill that replaces the infamous 35/1976 Act, especially following the 2011 revolution. The bill was to allow more freedom of association and trade union pluralism to combat ETUF’s monopolization of labor unions since its establishment  in 1957. In 2006, the Administrative Court ruled to annul the ETUF, alongside its affiliated elected trade unions.

According to Ramadan, during the years that followed the court ruling, several requests were submitted to the Egyptian government to draft a new bill regulating the work of unions. In 2008, two bills were proposed by independent labor groups, including the CTUWS. In the same year, the ILO blacklisted Egypt for violating trade union rights and refraining from issuing a new act. Its term on the blacklist was extended in 2010.

Following the January 2011 revolution, then-Labor Minister Ahmed al-Borai decreed that workers should have the right to establish independent trade unions simply by submitting the documents for a union to the ministry as a temporary procedure, until a new law is enacted. Over the months that followed, hundreds of independent trade unions were established, thanks to this decision. The ILO, in turn, took Egypt off the blacklist, but put it back on the list in 2013, because no bill was enacted, despite the presence of several drafts.

The law finally passed in 2017, and conforms to the constitutional principle allowing for “the establishment of federations and syndicates on a democratic basis [as] a right guaranteed by law.” But only in theory.

The new act classifies labor associations into three categories: Shop floor committees, trade unions (general unions) and federations. A shop floor committee represents workers from one facility or geographical area, the congress of several committees constitutes a trade union, and trade unions make up a trade federation.

However, the member quotas required to establish these committees, unions and federations under the new act are significantly higher than under the old law. Article 11, for instance, stipulates that the minimum number of members required to establish a shop floor committee is 150, while it was only 50 under the old act. And to establish a trade union, 15 shop floor committees, with at least 20,000 members, are required to join, as stipulated by Article 12.

In an article he published in the privately-owned Al-Shorouk newspaper, Borai said that 70 percent of industrial facilities in Egypt employ less than 100 workers, “which means that the vast majority of workers will have a hard time establishing unions of their own.” He referred to a recommendation by the ILO that the minimum number of workers required to form a union be 20.

The only trade unions and federations exempt from the new regulations and procedures are those that were established under the old act, which were affiliated with the ETUF. These groups can take part in elections through what Borai describes as a “backdoor,” in an effort to reaffirm the power of the ETUF. Similarly, Abbas of the CTUWS believes the new law and its exemption are a bid to reinstate and preserve the labor association that has existed since 1957.

The new law includes penalties for violations of its terms. All violations revolve around one issue: Engaging in attempts to form labor associations that do not comply with the officially set terms. Examples of punishments for doing so are laid out in the following articles:

Article 69 stipulates that, “Any person who establishes or forms a labor association or organization in violation of Article 5 of the law will be punished by imprisonment.” (Article 5: Establishing or forming labor associations based on religion, race or political affiliation is banned, as is forming or participating in organizations that violate the Constitution or the law.) 

Article 67 stipulates that any person who “participates in establishing or managing a facility, a society, an organization, an association, a body, or any other form of assembly, and illegally refers to it as a labor association in any correspondence, signs, advertisement, notes or statements to the public,” or “engages in any union activity that only board members of labor associations are authorized to practice,” shall be punished by imprisonment and/or a fine that is not less than LE5,000 and not more than LE20,000, as well as the possible confiscation of assets and/or closure of any premises used. 

Article 76 stipulates that any person who violates the ban on accepting gifts, donations, aid or funding from foreign individuals and entities shall be detained for no less than six months and be fined not less than LE100,000, and not more than LE200,000. 

Ramadan concludes that “the state does not want anyone organizing. The labor union law was only issued to win favor with the ILO, but it places very restrictive conditions on the right to organize. Despite this, people have tried to abide by the law in order to formalize their status, but the response was intransigency and the withdrawal or elimination of their files.”

Similarly, for worker activist and union organizer Hesham Fouad, the law puts an end to the independent trade union experience that followed the revolution. The main issue now, he says, is how the workers’ movement will be impacted, and the possibility of organizing under the new law.

Hadeer El-Mahdawy 
Mohamed Hamama