Saturday, December 5, 2009

Egypt's endangered breed of trade unionists

An endangered breed of trade unionists
Sat. December 5, 2009

Jano Charbel

The number of women working in Egypt's trade union offices has always been negligible. Two prominent examples of contemporary female trade union leaders are Aisha Abdel Hady, now minister of labor, and Aisha Abu Samada, an independent unionist who was sacked from her job and had her union membership suspended two years ago.

The 43-year-old Abu Samada has been employed at the El-Hennawy Tobacco Company, in the Nile Delta city of Damanhour, for the last 20 years. Yet despite her long years of service, her monthly wage only comes to LE400 (roughly US$72). “Starting salaries and basic wages at the company amount to LE300 per month," she told Al-Masry Al-Youm. "Nevertheless, the company stopped hiring new workers in 2003.”

Ten years ago, the El-Hennawy company boasted a workforce of some 800 employees. Now it only employs a total of 300 workers and administrators.

“Owner Talaat el-Hennawy and the company's administrative committee have sought to lay off hundreds of workers by withholding annual 10-percent pay raises and decreasing annual bonuses,” said Abu Samada. "Poor wages and working conditions have led hundreds to quit their jobs and look for better-paying work elsewhere.”

These and similar grievances are said to have prompted a series of labor strikes that rocked the company in both 2003 and 2006.

During trade union elections in November 2006, Abu Samada was nominated for council membership in her local union committee. “We didn't conduct elections in the traditional sense of the word. It was election by default," she explained. "We had nine candidates competing for nine council seats. Four other workers -- independents -- nominated themselves, but their candidacies were rejected.”

"My eight fellow unionists were all closely affiliated to the company's administrative council,” she added.

Once elected, she quickly sprang into action. By early 2007, Abu Samada had begun mobilizing her co-workers to demand annual 10-percent pay raises and full payment of promised bonuses. Isolated within the trade union committee -- and increasingly frustrated with the apathetic attitude of her fellow committee members -- Abu Samada urged her co-workers to issue a vote of no confidence against the eight pro-management unionists.

By August 1, 2007, her fellow union committee members had voted to remove Abu Samada from her seat on the committee. In response, she -- along with some 100 other workers from the El-Hennawy company -- staged protests outside the Cairo headquarters of the state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and the Labor Ministry.

Yet even though workers managed to collect around 250 signatures for a no confidence vote against the eight other unionists, both the ETUF and the Labor Ministry refused to recognize the petition. Shortly afterward, the General Union for Workers in Food Industries -- to which the El-Hennawy company's union committee is affiliated -- officially informed Abu Samada that the General Union council had voted to suspend her from union service.

“Aisha's membership has only been suspended," the General Union's chief official in charge of membership, Secretary-General Shaaban Mustafa, told Al-Masry Al-Youm. "She hasn't been sacked from her union committee council.”

“It was the unanimous decision of the General Union council owing to her irresponsible actions. She defamed her union in the press," Mustafa added. "I don't want to speak negatively about Aisha since this was her first term in union office, but she simply doesn't have enough union experience.”

In addition to her suspension from the union, el-Hennawy fired Abu Samada from her job at the company the following month. On the same day, el-Hennawy filed a lawsuit against Abu Samada at the Damanhour Primary Court, in which he accused her of slandering both himself and the company's administrative council in media statements and press interviews.

Yet despite Abu Samada's removal, the tobacco company continued to be plagued with labor unrest. In August 2008, 32 female workers were sacked for staging protests in which they demanded unpaid annual raises and bonuses, as well as Abu Samada's reinstatement. Three months later, the 32 women were themselves reinstated at the behest of the local union committee and the General Union for Workers in Food Industries. Their economic demands, however, remain unmet.

Abu Samada herself was reinstated at the company two years later, in October 2009, after her lawyers reached a compromise with el-Hennawy. Charges against her were dropped and legal proceedings brought to a halt, while she was given two years' of unpaid wages. Nevertheless, her membership in the union committee remains suspended.

“Based upon a social, economic and legal evaluation of the situation, the 21 members of the General Union council voted to reinstate the 32 workers that had been sacked," President of the General Union for Employees in Food Industries, Mohamad Naguib, told Al-Masry Al-Youm. "We even paid them compensation amounting to LE300 a month for every month they were jobless."

Naguib went on, however, to defend the General Union's decision to suspend Abu Samada's union membership.

"We seek to maintain harmony among employers and employees,” he said. “When a worker actively weakens this sense of unity in her union, then she is counterproductive and even detrimental. In some cases the General Union council must assume the role of surgeon, amputating an infected finger to save the hand.”

For his part, Mustafa said: “Aisha overstepped the legal regulations of unionism, but we're willing to reevaluate her standing now that she has been reinstated in her job. If she refrains from making slanderous remarks in the press, she may eventually be reinstated in her union committee -- but this is contingent upon the approval of the majority of the general syndicate council.”

The general syndicate council is composed of 21 members, most of whom -- including Naguib -- are members of the ruling National Democratic Party.

Abu Samada is currently appealing to the General Union, filing the necessary petitions and documents in hopes of returning to union service. “I really hope that I'm able to return to my union work," she said. "But this ultimately lies in the hands of the General Union.”

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