October 28, 2012
Trade union leaders in Egypt are joined in opposing the Muslim Brotherhood’s approach to rights and freedoms for union action.
Cairo - “Their attitude to workers, trade unions and economic and social rights is even more hostile than that of the National Democratic Party,” Egypt’s now-dissolved former ruling party. That is the verdict of Kamal Abu Aita, head of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), on the performance in power of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
Speaking to Al-Akhbar, Abu Aita was particularly critical of the behaviour of the MB’s labor minister, Khaled al-Azhari, charging that there was evidence he had been actively inciting employers and management against protesting workers in various institutions.“What happened during the protests by Cairo University is a good example,” he said. “He contacted the dean of the medical faculty at the university and told him to pay no attention to the independent trade union and deemed it to be illegal.”
The veteran activist, who helped set up Egypt’s first independent trade union after the successful January 2007 property tax collectors’ strike, came to his conclusion about the MB’s attitude through his experience of dealing with its leaders - particularly after the MB withdrew its earlier support for a new law on trade union freedoms, which Abu Aita had been promoting as a member of the now-dissolved parliament.
The legislation was drafted by the previous labor minister, Hassan al-Boraei, after wide-ranging social dialogue consultations with various stakeholders, including trade unions and political groups. But its passage was blocked by parliament’s labor committee by representatives of the MB’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) .
The FJP members of the committee instead sought to push through amendments to the existing trade union law, which dates from 1976. But the process was halted when the then-ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) dissolved the legislature, citing a court ruling that the electoral law under which it was elected was unconstitutional.
Abu Aita, who opposed the amendments in parliament prior to its dissolution, believes that “these very same amendments are what Khaled al-Azhari is now trying to get passed.” He said the minister was planning to incorporate them into a legislative decree that would be issued by President Mohamed Mursi, who has assumed law-making powers for himself in the absence of a parliament, pending fresh elections.
These provisions include, among other things, a ban on more than one trade union operating in a single workplace.
These plans were confirmed to Al-Akhbar by Nagi Rashad, a member of the temporary board of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which was appointed pending fresh internal elections after the old board was dissolved post-revolution.“I have verified information from sources I trust that the final draft is currently being completed by the legal committee at the presidency,” Rashad said.
Rashad was a prominent figure in the Egyptian labor movement prior to the revolution, who secured a landmark administrative court ruling compelling the government to set a minimum wage, and was seen as close to leftist circles. He is now considered one of the very few members of the new ETUF board who is close to the labor minister.
The board has filed a lawsuit against Azhari’s decision to defer the union’s elections by six months, which it says oversteps his ministry’s legal powers which are confined to organizing the elections under judicial supervision.
Rashad has been trying to reconcile the two sides, and said he was planning to arrange a meeting between them this week to resolve the escalating quarrel between the ETUF and the government – perhaps the first rift between them since the union was formed –which has reached unprecedented new heights. The minister was even expelled from his position on the ETUF board, which he had retained despite being appointed to the government of Prime Minister Hisham Qandil.
Rashad charged that opponents of the proposed amendments were acting out of self-interest, because the provisions on retirement due to disability or age would be likely to force a number of the current ETUF board members out of their jobs.A different line was taken by Abdul Moneim al-Gamal, who was a member of the ETUF board before the revolution and retained his position on the new one. He said he was opposed to the amendments as a matter of principle, “in line with the international conventions that Egypt has signed, which prohibit government interference in the internal affairs of the unions.”
The ETUF, and especially its veteran leaders like Gamal, are scarcely in a position to speak about international conventions. They have long been fierce opponents of the establishment of independent trade unions and of trade union plurality, which these conventions uphold but local laws prevented.
“Matters are not as they are being portrayed,” Gamal told Al-Akhbar. “ I am not opposed to trade union plurality in principle, but I am opposed to it getting out of hand, as that would risk fragmenting trade union work.”
The mutual hostility between the ETUF and EFITU reflects the political nature of their rivalry. The former has been closely aligned to the state throughout its history. The latter was inaugurated in Tahrir Square, cradle of the revolution, during its first few days, joining together dozens of independently formed trade unions.
Now the MB seems unwittingly to have brought that hostility to an end, as both sides join forces to oppose it.
*This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.