After 50-year hiatus, Egypt's first independent labor union is born
The Preparatory Conference for the Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions held on Wednesday marks the birth of Egypt's first independent trade union federation since 1957.
Several hundred workers, professionals and labor activists from across the country cheered what they anticipated would amount to impending death for the state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). For more than five decades, the ETUF has acted as the only federation of its kind allowed by law. ETUF President Hussein Megawer, along with other federation officials, has undergone investigation on charges of administrative corruption and union fund mismanagement following the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak.
The new union falls within a larger context of political restructuring and the creation of new political parties following the 18-day uprising that began on 25 January. Workers and employees are capitalizing on the momentum by restoring their right to unionize and staging protests to demand long-ignored rights.
The ETUF claims a nationwide membership of over 4 million workers, most of whom are employed in the public sector. Owing to allegations of corruption, mismanagement, and misrepresentation, however, the state-controlled federation's is declining and the organization is on its way to becoming obsolete. Indirect elections had handed members of Mubarak's ruling party the presidencies of 22 out of 24 general unions within the ETUF.
Labor-leader Kamal Abu Eita declared the official inauguration of the independent federation, and added "from here we announce the downfall of the yellow Egyptian Trade Union Federation!" In response, a crowd of workers chanted "Oh Megawer, go away! Go away! Let unions see the light of day."
The formation of the independent federation was initially announced on 30 January, but its structure, membership mechanisms, electoral guidelines and bylaws are still being formulated. The Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions currently includes: the Real Estate Tax Authority Employees' Union, the Egyptian Health Technologists' Syndicate, Federation of Pensioners, and the Independent Teachers' Syndicate, all of which were established in the last two years.
Elsewhere across the country, an untold number of workers are organizing their own independent associations--leagues, unions, syndicates and federations--outside the framework of the ETUF.
Other workers have announced they will be joining the ranks of the new independent federation. These include tens of thousands from the Mahalla Textile Company, the Public Transport Authority (bus drivers, conductors, mechanics, engineers and employees across Cairo), national postal workers, the Helwan Iron and Steel Complex, and the industrial workers in the town of Naga' Hamadi.
Thousands in private sector enterprises, including industrial workers from the cities of Tenth of Ramadan and Sadat, have also expressed their intention to unionize and join the Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions.
"We have some 5,000 factories in the Tenth of Ramadan City, yet only 13 of these have unions,” lamented a worker-delegate who attended the conference.
Nearly all the worker-delegates who spoke at the conference expressed their support for the 25 January revolution and democratic demands. Speakers also mentioned that workers' protests and strikes assisted in ousting Mubarak, and that such actions must be allowed to continue as part of the ongoing fight for democracy.
Salah Abdel Salam, President of the Real Estate Tax Authority Employees' (Branch) Union in the Daqahliya Governorate, emphasized that the ETUF, along with Egypt's labor and trade union laws "denied us the right to strike or protest… or to establish our own independent unions." Abdel Salam added that independent unionization will help realize a new minimum wage law of LE1200 per month (US$215) and safeguard the right to peaceful strikes and protests.
Abu Eita explained to workers, "All that you need in order to unionize is to collect notarized signatures from your co-workers and submit them, along with documents pertaining to the establishment of your union, to the Ministry of Labor. You don't have to ask, or wait, for the approval of Megawer's federation to establish an independent union in your workplace."
In the lobby outside the conference hall, a labor lawyer addressed dozens of workers. “Since the Constitution and the legislation of the old regime are suspended,” he said, “we are entitled to organize ourselves in line with conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO) which Egypt has ratified." His voice grew louder. "We are entitled to organize ourselves on the levels of workshops, factories and companies across the country; and on the basis of our industries, neighborhoods, towns, cities and governorates,” he added.
The lawyer was referring specifically to ILO conventions concerning “Freedom of Association & Protection of Right to Organize” (No. 87) and the “Right to Organize & Collective Bargaining” (No. 98). Though Egypt ratified the conventions in 1957 and 1954, respectively, it has failed to uphold them.