New Egyptian Unions Face a Clampdown

Jano Charbel Jan 24, 2012

CAIRO—The success of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak was made possible by the initiative of workers in key sectors of the Egyptian economy, not exclusively by the popular occupations of Tahrir and other city squares. A public transport strike across metropolitan Cairo, coupled with labor protests along the Suez Canal — along with other industrial actions across the country — helped bring down Mubarak.

The revolution has given birth to the first independent trade union federation in Egypt’s history — the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), along with the formation of farmers’ federations and unions. It has also spurred authorities to seek to dissolve the board of the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF,) which had monopolized the union movement — by law — since 1957.

The revolution has also led to the drafting — but not the issuing — of a new trade union law guaranteeing union freedoms and autonomy. Moreover, Egypt has moved towards the re-nationalization of some companies privatized during Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Yet, 2011 was also marred by numerous violations of workers’ rights. According to Karam Saber, Director of the Land Center for Human Rights, “The greatest setbacks to Egypt’s labor and union movements this year” include: the issuing of a new law criminalizing strikes, the forceful dispersal of strikes by hired thugs and security forces, and the referral of striking workers to military tribunals.”

Saber added, “Other setbacks include: the ruling authorities’ failure to issue the new trade union legislation, and as a result, the non-recognition of independent unions. There are also neglected labor rights, unpaid bonuses, mass layoffs, factory closures, and lockouts.”

Established on the fifth day of the revolution, the EFITU now has an estimated membership of more than 1.6 million workers, employees, and pensioners. Well over 100 independent unions and professional associations have emerged since the revolution.

Previously non-unionized workers, including fishermen, commercial divers, supermarket employees, seasonally employed-laborers, nurses and hospital staff, electronic journalists, pottery craftsmen, and quarry workers, have established their own independent unions.

Furthermore, thousands of unionized workers have quit the state-controlled ETUF and have established independent unions. They include Cairo’s public bus drivers, fare collectors, engineers and employees, who established the Independent Union of Public Transport Authority Workers in March.

Egypt witnessed a wave of strikes in 2011 – well over 200 were reported throughout the country. These work stoppages affected numerous industries throughout the public, private and informal sectors of the economy. Among the largest and most significant strikes were ones involving transport teachers, doctors and transport workers and textile workers in the industrial city of Mahalla.

There were also thousands of labor protests, marches, hunger strikes, occupations, sit-ins and sleep-ins. The EFITU and other independent unions have played a significant role in leading these actions.

Even police forces, which are strictly prohibited from striking, did so in Cairo and other cities in February, and again in October. The Interior Ministry was partially burned down during the October strike, and policemen’s salaries were raised by 200 percent.

Most of the labor protest has been fueled by similar demands: higher wages, payment of overdue bonuses, safer working conditions, full-time contracts for full-time work. Rather than the monthly minimum wage of $215 that EIFTU and other labor groups have been calling for, the Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of Finance agreed to set the minimum wage at $125 per month. This new minimum wage officially came into effect as of the beginning of 2012, but may not be enforced. A maximum wage for management has not been determined.

The tumult of the past year has taken a toll on business. According to media reports, state-owned and private enterprises have incurred hundreds of millions of pounds worth of losses due to strike actions causing the Cairo Stock Exchange to plummet. Transport strikes and blocked roads have also inconvenienced commuters.

The Egyptian media has responded by introducing derogatory new terms in its coverage of labor unrest, terms that did not exist prior to 2011. These include ta’ateel ‘agalet al-intag (“halting the wheel of production”) and fe’awiya (“sectoral/industry-based”) to describe labor protests and worker demands as selfish and parochial in comparison to the broad, patriotic concerns of those who participated in the Tahrir Square uprising.

In an unprecedented move, the interim cabinet in April issued a law criminalizing strikes and protests that “harm the national economy.” The law was officially enacted in June, but has rarely been enforced.

Numerous legal cases have been brought before the judiciary prior to and since the revolution — for an adequate monthly minimum wage, for the dissolution of the state-controlled ETUF, for the re-nationalization of Egyptian companies, and for the repeal of the law criminalizing strikes.

One tentative legal victory for workers occurred Sept. 21 when the Administrative Court nullified privatization contracts for three companies upon finding that they were illegally privatized, having been sold to investors for less than their real market value.

The court ruled that the Indorama Shebin Textile Company, the Tanta Flax and Oils Company, and the Nasr Company for Steam Boilers are to be returned to the public sector. The privatization contracts of two other companies — the Omar Effendi department stores, and the Nile Cotton Ginning Company — were similarly annulled by administrative court rulings in May and December, respectively.

According to Gamal Othman, a worker-activist at the Tanta Flax and Oils Company, “Our company, and our rights as workers, have been raped by the Saudi investor who bought this company.” Othman pointed out that upon its privatization in 2005, the company employed some 2,300 workers on ten production lines, but that “now we’re only 300 workers operating only two production lines.”
Although a court ruled in favor of annulling this company’s privatization contract, the verdict is being appealed. According to Othman, “The Ministry of Investment and other governmental authorities are appealing against this verdict because they claim that they want to protect investors’ rights, and that they don’t want to scare investors away from Egypt. We also want to protect investors’ rights — but not if this means that the investor is allowed to violate the rights of workers and the rights of Egyptian state.”

A longer version of this article originally appeared at

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