Monday, February 29, 2016

Egypt: Parliament siding against basic labor rights & freedoms

Mada Masr  

Parliament stacked against labor interests?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Jano Charbel 

The new Parliament, which convened for the first time in January, is reviewing several pieces of legislation that could adversely affect the country’s workforce.

With only a handful of labor representatives — all of whom were executively appointed to the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) — the Parliament is the first legislative body in over 50 years to have been elected without the 50 percent quota allotted to workers’ and farmers’ representatives.

The 2014 Constitution scrapped a 1964 constitutional provision allocating at least half of parliamentary seats to representatives of the labor force.

The resulting legislature has been received with sharp censure by workers, labor activists and independent union leaders alike. The highly contentious civil service law — the only presidential decree to be shot down by the new Parliament — as well as the unified labor law and the trade union law are among several pieces of legislation being redrafted by an 11-member Manpower Committee.

But the lack of independent labor representation has many more than skeptical about the products of the committee’s efforts, and those of the Parliament more broadly.

For Talal Shokr of the independent Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services, there is no genuine labor representation in Parliament. Instead, the five ETUF unionists who secured parliamentary seats — and who are concentrated in the 11-member Manpower Committee — won their seats on the For the Love of Egypt list — a staunchly pro-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi coalition — rather than being elected as individual candidates.

“These MPs from ETUF are following in the state’s footsteps, as they have for decades,” Shokr argues. “There is not a single MP from the independent trade union movement.”

Egypt’s independent trade unions began to emerge in 2009 as an alternative to ETUF, which had acted as the only legally recognized trade union federation since its establishment in 1957.

The new Parliament is not a real one, argues Kamal al-Fayoumy, a worker from the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, but a “large council of yes-men … a tool in the executive authorities’ hands.” He alludes to Parliament’s approval of 340 presidential decrees — from a total of 341 such laws issued in the absence of Parliament — in a period of just 15 days.

“Have you ever seen a Parliament approving every single law, out of hundreds of laws, issued by the president in such a short period of time?” Fayoumy asks.

The highly contentious civil service law was the only law that Parliament rejected, with nearly 68 percent of MPs voting it down.

Civil servants held several strikes and large protests in 2015 against the decree, arguing that it imposed caps on their bonuses and wages and thus kept their incomes flat in the face of inflation, while simultaneously empowering their administrators with sweeping managerial powers over employees.

Protesting civil servants also argued that the presidency issued the decree unilaterally without consulting them or their trade unions. Even ETUF representatives in Parliament explained that the presidency did not consult with them while the civil service law was being formulated.

ETUF President and member of Parliament (MP) Gebali al-Maraghi said in an interview on the Sada al-Balad satellite channel that he approves of Sisi's plans for administrative reform of the public sector, but objects to the presidential decree, as its drafting involved "no consultation with civil society, or ETUF."

Maraghi added that without consultations, “conspirators and saboteurs” infiltrated and mislead the ranks of the workforce, then he reiterated that ETUF is “against all protests, and all strikes.”
Another ETUF MP, Solaf Darwish, told the privately owned news site Youm7 that she rejected the civil service law since it would “harm 6 million families,” and because it could lead to a countrywide explosion of protests and strikes.

Most of the 11 members of Parliament’s Manpower Committee are reported to have rejected the civil service law. However, Parliament's voting roster for January 20 indicated that three out of five ETUF MPs voted for its approval in private, even though they opposed the law in public and in statements to media outlets. Maraghi, Darwish and one other ETUF leader, Gamal Oqabi, reportedly voted for the law in the end.

The Manpower Committee is currently said to be involved in redrafting the civil service law. Maraghi claimed there are 12 articles the committee asked the presidency to amend before they would approve it.

The Manpower Committee is set to also redraft the unified labor law.

But Hoda Kamel, an independent union organizer and member of the grassroots campaign Toward a Just Labor Law, stresses that the Manpower Ministry and Parliament alike have largely excluded independent unions from participation in the redrafting process, while allowing businessmen and their associations to make amendments in order to protect their interests.

“The drafts of the unified labor law I’ve seen include virtually no protection for precarious laborers, few contractual safeguards and decreased rights for trade unions in negotiations with the state or employers,” Kamel adds.

Several local media outlets reported that the Federation of Egyptian Industries, along with other businessmen’s associations and chambers of commerce, have formed a lobby to reject recent drafts of the labor law as formulated by the Ministry of Manpower. Business federations complained that the ministry’s initial drafts include provisions that would frighten investors and discourage investment in Egypt.

According to independent union organizer Fatma Ramadan, “The new provisions found in several of the existing drafts [of the labor law] may negatively impact workers’ total wages. These drafts have linked workers’ wages to production, even if production is on the decline due to administrative policies.”

The drafts Ramadan has read of the law “facilitate punitive sackings of worker, and stipulate they may be sacked for exercising their right to strike, or for not abiding by administrators’ policies,” she says. “Unions’ collective bargaining powers have been weakened, while employers have been empowered to determine their own labor policies without workers’ involvement.”

Another law on the Manpower Committee’s agenda is the highly polarizing trade union law. This law, and its precursors since 1957, guaranteed ETUF a legally binding monopoly over the trade union movement. Further, the law does not recognize the existence of unions or federations organized outside ETUF’s structure.

Through the Manpower Committee as well as the judiciary, ETUF has launched a campaign in hopes of outlawing independent trade unions or federations across the country. ETUF leaders filed a formal complaint at a Cairo police station in late January, while also filing a lawsuit before the Cairo Administrative Court. The first hearing took place on February 7.

The trial was adjourned until March 13 to allow ETUF to present documents regarding its last elections, held in 2006. ETUF elections have been overdue since 2011, and its leaders have been appointed by the Ministry of Manpower over the past five years.

In May 2015, Sisi issued a presidential decree extending the terms of office for ETUF’s leadership by another year.

According to ETUF’s website, its leaders describe independent unions as “illegitimate and illegal,” as well as “a threat to national security.” Moreover, ETUF leaders claim that independent unions serve to divide and weaken the unity of the trade union movement.

ETUF MP Mohamed Wahballah spoke of the Manpower Committee’s plans for the new trade union law, telling local media outlets: “The bill being prepared will determine the necessary conditions for the establishment of trade unions, and must be applicable to all unions.”

“ETUF representatives in Parliament simply want to maintain a monopoly over Egypt’s trade unions,” Shokr argues, “while they vote against basic labor rights and freedoms — even in violation of existing International Labor Organization [ILO] legislation. Their loyalty is not to the working class, but to the ruling regimes that keep them in power.”

Fayoumy concurs. “They [ETUF and the Manpower Committee] may try their best to limit the presence of independent unions, but the Constitution, along with international conventions that the Egyptian state has ratified over the past decades, safeguard the right to establish unions independently of state control.”

Fayoumy and Shokr refer to constitutional Article 76, which stipulates “the right to establish syndicates and unions on a democratic basis,” and also guarantees their independence.

They also point to the ILO's Convention 87 and Convention 98, which guarantee employees the right to form unions of their choosing.

Egypt voluntarily ratified both ILO Conventions in 1957 and 1954, respectively, but to this day has still not brought its domestic legislation in-line with these international agreements.

Under the auspices of then-minister Ahmed al-Borai, in 2011 the Manpower Ministry presided over the formulation of a bill recognizing the existence of independent trade unions. However, the bill was repeatedly shelved by the consecutive governments of the past five years.

Other laws expected to be reviewed and redrafted by the Manpower Committee in coordination with Parliament’s Health Affairs Committee include the national health insurance law and the social insurance law.

The Doctors Syndicate rejected the latest draft of the health insurance law, arguing that it deprives lower-income demographics of access to affordable medical care, while largely benefiting insurance companies.

As for the social insurance law, fewer details have emerged as to the state’s plans to amend existing legislation.

But Ramadan isn’t hopeful, saying, “I don’t expect anything positive or progressive to come out of this Parliament.”

*Photo courtesy of Libcom.

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