New law to free workers' syndicates from state control
Labor activists are keenly anticipating a new law on labor syndicates, a draft of which has apparently been completed and which could be enacted within weeks.
It is hoped the law will free workers' syndicates from state control and so improve the working conditions of Egyptian laborers, which deteriorated severely under the rule of toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
The Manpower and Immigration Ministry declared last week that the draft of the law had reached its final form following discussions with independent labor leaders and rights organizations.
Experts describe the draft law as offering a boost to labor rights and as one of the major achievements of the 25 January revolution.
“The new law grants workers the right to form syndicates without restrictions being imposed by the state,” says Kamal Abbas, coordinator for the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS).
Once enacted, the draft law will cancel the Trade Union Law, passed in 1976, which codified the state's control over the formation, regulation and financial oversight of syndicates, turning them into institutions closely affiliated with the state.
According to the 1976 law, all workers' syndicates were required to join one of the 23 general unions of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), a state-controlled organization during the Mubarak era.
According to the draft law, however, syndicates will manage their own regulations and finances. They will also report directly to the Manpower and Immigration Ministry, which will be responsible for syndicate affairs.
"The existing law ensured the domination of workers' syndicates by the state-controlled ETUF, imposing strict conditions on its members, while forcing them to abide by laws that served businessmen close to the former regime," says Abbas. The new law is designed to bring an end to this domination, he says.
Under the current law, the ETUF is the supreme authority for worker's affairs, writing policy for the affiliated syndicates and supervising all of their affairs, including approving budgets and administrative regulation. It also has the right to withdraw its support from members of the affiliated syndicates. The new draft law is expect to give syndicates the authority to run their own affairs.
“The Egyptian Trade Union Federation was originally established to create union among the syndicates, which means the federation dominates the syndicates, not the other way round," says Khaled Aly, executive director of the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights.
In early August, the Prime Minister dissolved the board of the ETUF after a court statement declared that the board's elections in 2006 were rigged. A new temporary committee was formed to run the ETUF's affairs until new elections are held. However, it is expected that once the new board comes into place, it will not have the power to interfere in the internal affairs of syndicates within the federation, in accordance with the new law.
The new law creates a system by which syndicates are responsible for their own financial oversight, supervised by a committee composed of three members elected from different syndicates. If the ministry notices any violations, it can resort to a legal process, but cannot penalize the syndicates on its own.
Aly says that the shifting of financial management to the syndicates themselves is an attempt to empower the membership, who establish and maintain their syndicates from their own efforts and finances, in order to achieve fair working conditions and better representation.
The new draft law also prevents syndicates from receiving donations from foreign sources, unless they are members of international labor organizations or the money is for technical support purposes.
The draft law will not change the conditions for the election of presidents, directors or board members of syndicates. However, it does authorize syndicates to name which court should monitor their elections, and terms are now limited to four years, instead of five. The old law authorized the Justice Ministry to select the judicial authority responsible for overseeing the elections of each syndicate.
Aly also supports an article within the draft law that bans the establishment of syndicates on religious or partisan grounds, clarifying that the new law aims to create pluralism inside syndicates without discrimination, unlike the former regime.
One of the draft law’s articles stresses that business owners cannot compel their workers to join a syndicate of which the owner is a member.
"This article gives laborers legal confidence. Workers can, for the first time, negotiate with their employers without administrative reservations," says Abbas.
Members of the now-disbanded ETUF have protested against the new law, accusing Minister of Manpower Ahmed Kamel al-Borai of fragmenting the trade union movement and demanding his dismissal.
Around 33 trade unions, NGOs and civil society institutions have given their approval to the proposed law, which is to be reviewed by cabinet in the coming days.
*Photograph: Mohamed Abdel Ghany