Egypt: sweeping reform needed to protect workers’ rights
30 April 2010
Amnesty International urges the Egyptian authorities to lift restrictions on the creation and functioning of independent workers’ unions, and to set up a system which guarantees an adequate minimum wage. The call comes ahead of International Workers’ Day on 1 May and planned strikes by Egyptian workers on 2 May.
“The authorities must mark International Workers’ Day by announcing sweeping legal and institutional reforms to promote and protect labour rights, including by allowing for workers to organize freely and form unions,” said Amnesty International.
“Setting up and enforcing a system to ensure a fair minimum wage, one which ensures that all workers and their families are guaranteed decent living conditions, is a necessary first step to realizing labour rights, as provided by the Egyptian Constitution, the Egyptian Labour Law and in accordance with Egypt’s international obligations.”
Article 23 of the Egyptian Constitution states that a minimum and a maximum wage should be fixed in order to ensure less disparity in income. Egypt is also a state party to the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, which stipulates that states must ensure that all workers get, as a minimum, a fair wage (Article 7). The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has repeatedly called on governments to ensure that minimum wages enable workers and their families to enjoy adequate standards of living.
Furthermore Egypt is a party to the C131 Minimum Wage Fixing Convention which requires states to establish a system of minimum wages.
Over the last few years, thousands of protests, strikes and sit-ins have been staged by Egyptian workers in both the public and private sectors, protesting the rising cost of living and demanding better wages and working conditions. These demonstrations, while not authorized, have been largely tolerated by the authorities. Many demonstrators have in recent months aired their grievances in protests in front of government buildings and the Parliament in Cairo. More protests are planned for next week.
“Workers in Egypt have for many years been forced to demand and defend their rights through one single union, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation,” said Amnesty International. “The monopoly of the ETUF over trade unions and its close links with the government has evidently failed on many occasions to support, protect and promote workers’ rights and as such has contributed to impoverish them and their families.”
The workers’ demands are being voiced in this manner because of the perception that the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), and local general labour unions affiliated to it, is unable to adequately represent and defend the workers’ interests in light of its close links to the authorities. The ETUF, the only such federation in Egypt, is seen as being too close to the government and the ruling party, the National Democratic Party, and therefore not representative of workers demands. The workers’ actions have also been the result of the lack of independent trade unions that can represent them, negotiate on their behalf or allow them bargain collectively.
In 1957 the Egyptian authorities mandated the ETUF to be the sole trade union structure in the country and curtailed freedom of association by forbidding workers to organize and form unions outside the 23 general labour unions affiliated to the ETUF.
On 26 April, five days before International Labour Day, the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration (MoMM) refused to accept an application by the Pension Holders Union to register as an independent union outside of the ETUF. Representatives of the Pension Holders Union were told that the minister was on sick leave. The Pension Holders Union wanted to follow in the steps of real estate tax collectors who were able, after protracted negotiations with the MoMM, to obtain official recognition of their own independent union in April 2009. The Independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Workers (IGURETA) is the first independent trade union in Egypt in more than 50 years.
The right to strike is effectively limited by Egyptian law and is subject to approval by a two-thirds majority by the general union’s executive committee, and further ratification by the ETUF. By restricting workers’ rights to strike and organize freely, the Egyptian authorities are not only breaching their obligations to uphold the right to freedom of association, they are also preventing workers from improving their economic conditions and to move out of poverty.
In its concluding observation on Egypt in 2000, the CESCR called on the Egyptian authorities to amend the Penal Code to allow for the right to strike and expressed concerns about the-then proposal to amend the Labour Law to limit the rights to strike and to ban labour committing from negotiating collectively on behalf of workers.
The restrictions on the rights to strike and to freely organize and form unions are part of wider limitations imposed on freedom of association and assembly in Egypt. Non governmental organizations (NGOs) operate under a very restrictive law on associations (Law 84 of 2002). In 2007, the Centre for Trade Unions Workers Services, a leading workers’ advice centre, was closed – only reopening a year later after wining a lawsuit. The current proposed amendments to the law on associations are said to impose still further restrictions and to control the activities of NGOs and associations through increased administrative measures. These further restrictions are purportedly being imposed for security reasons.
“The authorities must end the use of security as a pretext to clamp down on freedom of association. Social stability and security cannot be guaranteed without first giving workers their full rights which guarantee adequate living conditions for themselves and their families.”
On 30 March 2010, an administrative court ruled against the government’s decision to abstain from putting into operation the National Council for Wages, a body which is mandated with setting a minimum wage, in accordance with the Labour Law of 2003. The court ruled in favour of two workers supported by the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights.
The National Council of Wages, established by the Labour Law of 2003 and headed by the Minister of Economic Development, is responsible for setting minimum wages at the national level, taking into account the cost of living, and for finding means and measures that ensure a balance between prices and wages.