(Beirut) – The Egyptian government should legalize independent trade unions, Human Rights Watch said today, on International Workers’ Day. Egypt should also end the decades-old single official union system and allow free and fair elections to union boards for the first time since the country’s 2011 uprising.
Egypt’s 1976 Trade Union Law does not recognize any trade unions except the official government-controlled unions affiliated with the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). Independent trade unions proliferated after the 2011 uprising, but the government has not officially recognized them, even though the 2014 constitution guarantees freedom of association.
“Egypt’s government is ignoring the basic right of workers to organize independently,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The government seems intent on stifling the freedom Egypt’s labor movement only gained after years of struggle that culminated in the 2011 uprising.”
The government has announced its intention to propose a new trade union law, but no final draft has been made public. The failure of successive governments to amend the Trade Union Law, as well as recent decisions by the cabinet and Interior Ministry to stop dealing with the de-facto independent unions, have led labor activists to fear that labor rights gains since 2011 are facing erosion.
According to activists, once Manpower Minister Gamal Sorour took office in September 2015, no new independent unions have been able to register. Activists also expressed fears that members of independent unions might face prosecution after an official newspaper on April 17, 2016, said that an investigation is being conducted that could lead to charges against leaders and members of these unions.
On April 8, the director general of the International Labour Organization (ILO), Guy Ryder, condemned Egypt’s refusal to recognize independent unions and said that its refusal “prohibits collective bargaining and exposes union leaders to the risk of dismissal and arrest.”
Ryder also asked the Egyptian government to “expeditiously clarify all the facts” surrounding the death of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student who researched independent unions and other workers’ issues in Egypt. Regeni was found dead on February 4, 2016, after last being seen in Cairo on January 25, amid a heavy police presence accompanying the fifth anniversary of the 2011 uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak.
On March 1, 2016, local news websites reported that the Interior Ministry had issued an internal decision to no longer accept documents stamped by independent unions. The ministry stated that the decision came after recommendations from its National Security Agency. On March 8, lawyers for the General Union for Professionals, Technicians and Artisans filed a lawsuit challenging the decision.
The Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS), one of Egypt’s oldest independent groups advocating workers’ rights, said the prime minister issued a memo in November 2015, ordering ministries to cooperate only with the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. The directive stated that this was meant to help take action “against independent unions and instigators,” the center said.
Kamal Abbas, the head of the center and a member of the National Council for Human Rights, told Human Rights Watch that the Interior Ministry’s March 1 decision was unconstitutional. He said that workers need a stamped document from their union to be able to obtain various government documents and that this decision would force workers to belong to an official union.
Egypt’s 2014 constitution states in article 13 that the government “shall protect workers’ rights and strive to build balanced work relationships between both parties to the production process. It shall ensure means for collective negotiations.” Article 76 guarantees the right to form independent syndicates and unions.
Egypt is a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which establishes the right to strike as well as the right to form and join trade unions and national and international confederations.
Egypt is also a member of the ILO and has ratified all of its eight fundamental conventions, including convention 87 of 1948 on freedom of association and convention 98 of 1949 on the right to organize. Convention 87 states that workers have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organization concerned, to join organizations of their own choosing without previous authorization.
“Protecting workers’ rights to independently organize is a basic right, not a luxury,” Houry said. “Egypt needs economic development for all, but such development doesn’t come with oppressing workers.”
Developments Concerning Trade Unions
Egypt created the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, a government-controlled trade union framework, in the 1950s as an extension of the state. Between 2008 and the 2011 uprising, workers tried to establish independent trade unions, but the Manpower Ministry rejected their articles of association.
Independent unions proliferated after the January 2011 uprising. Ahmed al-Borie, who was appointed as manpower minister in 2011, presented the “Declaration of Union Freedoms” in March 2011, which was meant to pave the way to remove legal restrictions on workers’ right to organize.
After al-Borie’s declaration, the independent unions gained partial government recognition, which allowed them to register. Al-Borie also prepared a draft law that labor activists described as the most progressive of those proposed since January 2011.
Successive governments prepared at least two other draft laws since then but none was adopted.
Human Rights Watch received a copy of the latest available draft trade union law that the government prepared under former Manpower Minister Nahed al-Ashry between 2014 and 2015. The draft law would end the single union system but restrict organizations’ rights in other ways, such as punishing with prison time those who establish unions without approval.
The governments’ and parliaments’ failure to amend restrictive laws made it easy for the authorities to increasingly erode these limited concessions. For example, independent unions that were able to register cannot deduct dues from members’ salaries, and their members have not usually been allowed to serve as workers’ representatives on national councils or in negotiations with business owners.
The 1976 Trade Union Law permits only officially recognized unions to operate. The law established the trade union federation, a single pyramidal government-controlled entity with 24 officially recognized general unions.
The law originally established 21 general unions and gave the government and the federation absolute control over the establishment of new unions. Since its issuance, the federation has approved only three more unions, the most recent of which was the Tax, Customs and Finance General Union in 2010.
According to activists, its establishment was a step to undermine anti-government mobilization, including large sit-ins, organized by workers who had been trying to establish an independent union for Real Estate Tax Authority workers.
The government dissolved the boards of the federation and several official unions in August 2011, following multiple court decisions ruling the previous board elections, in 2006, illegal based on a lack of judicial supervision. But successive Egyptian governments have not allowed new elections and have kept in place unelected boards appointed by various manpower ministers.
In November 2012, then-President Mohamed Morsy, who was ousted by the military in July 2013, postponed federation and general unions’ elections for six months, ordered the retirement of union leaders over age 60, and gave the manpower minister the authority to choose new leaders for the vacated or otherwise unoccupied seats. On May 30, 2013, Morsy decreed a one-year extension of the appointed leadership. In May 2015, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi postponed the union board elections again and extended the current boards’ term for one year.
Following Morsy’s removal by the military, the authorities found themselves with more leeway to crack down on independent unions amid a broader stifling of dissent, said a workers’ rights researcher at the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights, an independent group.
On February 4, 2016, Gamal Sorour, who was appointed manpower minister after al-Ashry, said in an interview with the privately owned newspaper al-Masry al-Youm that he would draft a new trade union law that would not recognize independent unions.
Sorour was replaced by Mohamed Safaan, a federation board member, in a cabinet reshuffle on March 23. Safaan then declined to meet with a delegation representing independent unions, said Abbas, the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services head. Safaan said that he could “only meet with them as individual workers but not as representatives of entities that he did not acknowledge,” Abbas told Human Rights Watch.
The privately owned newspaper el-Watan reported on February 11, that the head of the federation, Gebaly al-Maraghy, who is also a member of parliament, said that a federation “legislative committee” had prepared a new draft law that would dissolve all independent unions and sent it to the government, which would send it to parliament in “a matter of weeks.” On April 23, al- Maraghy was elected head of parliament’s Manpower Committee.
Federation board members, including al-Maraghy, have spoken publicly against independent unions and opposed legalizing them, saying it would harm the economy and foster instability. Recently, the head of the official Union of Tax, Finance and Customs Workers, an affiliate of the federation, filed suit before the Administrative Court, which rules on the legality of government actions, demanding the dissolution of independent unions. The court said it would issue its verdict on June 26.
Abbas said he believes the government’s escalation might include arrests and prosecutions. The government-owned newspaper al-Ahram reported on April 17, that the Social Solidarity and Manpower Ministries were looking into the funds of independent unions after “monitoring communications between theses unions and foreign international organizations aiming at instigating workers’ protests.”