Workers struggle against bureaucracy to create new unions
At least a dozen independent unions have sprung up following Egypt's 18-day uprising, forming the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions and beginning to break the state's 54-year monopoly on labor organizations.
The independent federation aims to compete with the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) as immense changes to the trade union movement are also being implemented from the top down.
The Ministry of Manpower, which oversees union activity, is currently drafting a new law governing trade unions to replace the restrictive Trade Union Act (no. 35 of 1976), which forced all Egyptian unions to organize under the umbrella of the ETUF, which was controlled by the state and the ruling party. Despite their reservations, worker advocacy groups have praised the new draft law.
Meanwhile, labor lawyers and organizers are attempting to dissolve the ETUF altogether.
The Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS), an independent NGO, is instrumental in the movement toward trade union independence. The center is filing a lawsuit against the chief of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the interim prime minister, and the interim minister of manpower, on the basis that they have failed to implement previous court rulings against ETUF electoral violations, which occurred during the nationwide trade union elections in October-November 2006.
"These authorities moved to dissolve the People's Assembly and the Shura Council on the basis that their elections were rigged, and their members were fraudulently appointed,” said Kamal Abbas, the director of the CTUWS. “The same should apply to the ETUF, as its elections were similarly rigged."
Abbas said that unions’ membership in the ETUF was obligatory. The previous ruling regime used the ETUF as a tool to mobilize workers in support of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP).
“The authorities also dissolved the NDP and placed its buildings and assets under the state's guardianship. The ETUF was an appendage of Mubarak's party, and accordingly it should be dissolved," says Abbas.
The ETUF maintains 24 general unions, 22 of which were presided over by members of the NDP, who were selected via indirect elections. Over the course of more than five decades, the ETUF has accumulated an excess of 4 million dues-paying members.
The independent federation was founded on 30 January by the few independent unions in existence at the time. It now has a membership of around 250,000 in 12 unions across the country and is rapidly growing.
"We aim to dissolve the leadership and structure of the ETUF via administrative court rulings,” says Rahma Refaat, a lawyer with the CTUWS. “We hope that the state will take control of the federation, its Workers' University, its cultural institutes, local offices, clinics, hospitals, etc, at least until new elections are held."
Ahmed Hassan al-Borai, interim Minister of Manpower, declared on 13 March that workers have the right to establish their own independent unions as long as they submit paperwork to the ministry or its local offices.
This decree has prompted the creation of unions in industries such as fishing, agriculture, and street cleaning that had not previously been unionized. Yet many workers have encountered resistance to their attempts to unionize.
Farmers in the town of Nubariya in the Delta governorate of Beheira successfully formed Egypt’s first farmer’s union on 14 April, but other groups have not had it so easy.
Shortly after the ministry’s announcement, Tharwat Ali, a small-scale farmer from the village of Zarabi in the Upper Egyptian Governorate of Beni Suef, submitted paperwork to form an independent union committee along with other farmers and agricultural workers.
“Officials at the bureau refused to accept our paperwork, and told us they weren't informed of the new policy regarding the establishment of independent trade unions," Ali says.
The Land Center for Human Rights says that local bureaus denied the establishment of 25 unions nationwide.
"I don't understand why the authorities have approved the authorization of a farmers' union in Beheira, and why they are rejecting the establishment of an identical union in Beni Suef," Ali says.
The Ministry of Manpower could not be reached for comment regarding resistance to unionization from local bureaus.
Elsewhere, Kamal Hassan, a fisherman in Nile Delta Governorate Kafr al-Sheikh is also struggling to establish an independent union. After initially facing resistance from the Bureau of Manpower in his governorate, 262 fishermen received clearance to establish the Independent Union of Fishermen in Abu Khashaba and Arab al-Gezira on 17 April.
"We've never had a union for fishermen before, so we are trying to raise awareness regarding the role of trade unions in protecting the rights of its members," says Hassan.
"Most fishermen aren't aware that unions serve to safeguard their constituents’ interests, and to improve their working conditions. We expect that many more will join us when they see the benefits of unionization," he says.