HRW asks Egypt to unshackle workers’ right to organize
May 1, Beirut: Human Rights Watch asked the Egyptian government to legalize independent trade unions. It also asked Egypt to 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.”
The Oslo Times/HRW