Unions | Trade Union Freedom Bill: Historical Turning Point in State-Labor Relations
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Unions | Trade Union Freedom Bill: Historical Turning Point in State-Labor Relations

Analytic Paper on The New Proposed Trade Union Freedoms Bill

The inauguration of the new trade union law, which challenges for the first time since the 50s of last century the monolithic arrangement of labor organization, marks a historical turning point in state-labor relations. It is of a significance that may be overlooked within the post-January 2011 situation of blurred distinctions between the static and the dynamic. The new law may not have a radical effect on labor relations in Egypt in the short-run, especially when it comes to state interventions into them. However, this should not mitigate its historical significance if we place it within the larger context of the overall evolution in relations between the July 1952 state and workers. Within this framework, this law could signify the official end of a major pillar on which the contractual form of state-labor relations on which the Nasserist apparatus was built. This apparatus was later followed by the Mubarak formula preserving the old totalitarian shade during its final years.

The Bill Is A Spark Of Hope Amidst The Surrounding Atmosphere Of Confusion

The contractual form of the July 1952 state, during the Nasser era, responded to two main factors. First was the ambition of building the modern state on the basis of heavy industrialization, and second was the preoccupation with retaining all social dynamics under its control. Henceforth, the state provided important gains to the workers in order to act as their main patron. Being the largest employer, the state established labor relations based upon laws aimed to negate the need for periodical negotiations between the state and workers over work conditions, and so the union organization was emptied from its essential function to become a mere service provider for the workers and a tool for the state to keep the working class under its control. The singular labor organization was integrated completely within the single-party state.

Despite the erosion of the contractual form of the July 1952 state during the Sadat era and later the Mubarak era, and the almost complete disintegration of its essential components in the final years before the revolution, the state kept the stubborn insistence on the singular and integrated trade union system as a tool for controlling the working class, which developed a contradiction intensifying with time. While the state let go of a large portion of its ownership in the public sector, gave up its role as the patron for workers and their rights, and reformulated the labor law to strip the workers from all their previous gains during the Nasser era, the union organization remained static without a space for a fresh alternative. In reality, this meant a greater need to the workers for a real labor union; a need that has become dire after the deterioration of working conditions due to the neoliberal policies adopted by the state, and they couldn’t make use of the sole organization they belonged to (which was not created to defend them in the first place).

From an international perspective, Law 35 was a main reason the International Labor Organization (ILO) blacklisted Egypt as a country that does not respect workers’ rights, and precisely their right for developing their democratically run independent unions. In the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, Egypt was removed from the list when the revolutionary momentum brought some reassurance that it could help correct the conditions of union activity in Egypt and the release a new law for trade union freedoms. Also reassuring was the release of the “Declaration of Trade Union Freedom” in March 12th 2011 by Dr Ahmed Boraey, Minister of Manpower and Emigration in the cabinet of Essam Sharaf, with the presence of ILO director at the time, Juan Somavia. There was also a pledge that a new trade union law will be released in the nearest change. However, this new law has not seen the light during the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Later, with the rise to power of Dr Mohamed Morsi as the first civilian president in July 1st 2012, the hope was renewed for a new law, but it shortly vaporized when the Muslim Brotherhood’s intention of imposing their dominance on the trade union organization became clear. This continued delay in releasing the law led to Egypt being blacklisted by the ILO again in June 2013 (two years after its removal), with a grace period of 6 months to make formal adjustments.

With the second wave of the revolution, which ousted Mohamed Morsi, and the formation of a new cabinet, the case comes back to the forefront for a release of a new trade union freedom law. Thus, a new bill is brought to light on its way to passing after discussions with trade union federations. This counts as a spark of hope within a surrounding scene of confusion over the real intentions of the July 3rd 2013 regime regarding its relation with workers. The concern is strong especially after worrying signs of labor strikes repression, and the intervention of army forces directly to disperse the factory sit-ins and imposing pressure on the workers to abandon their demands.

Main Features of the Bill

Breaking the current system of single-union is the feature that stands out the most in the new law, which allows for union pluralism for the first time since 1957. Although the workers seized the right to independent labor unions, through struggle before the revolution (the success of the Real Estate Tax in 2008) and after (the subsequent independent organizations and their coalition under the Independent Federation of Egyptian Workers, as well as the emergence of other similar federations alongside), the absence of legal recognition of those union bodies remained a major obstacle to the unions fulfilling their role in defending the interest of their members.

The Bill Came After Months Of Talks Involving The INd. Unionis, NGOs (Led By ECESR), & The Government, Future Will push For More Steps

In addition to granting the right of forming labor unions and federations solely by notifying the administrative body, the law refers the task of setting the internal bylaws to the bodies themselves, which allows greater flexibility and independence in deciding the organizational structure and functioning of the unions. Meanwhile, the law only imposes a few rules, specifically: the eligibility of membership in the Board of Directors (most importantly literacy), restrictions on referral to retirement and prevention of members holding any penalizing power in the workplace, and it assigns the General Assembly as the highest authority to lay out policy and oversee all affairs.

Perhaps the main weakness of the law is the provisional articles regarding the legalization of the standing trade unions; those articles are characterized with being too general and brief. The authorization process is referred to the respective minister, while the special status of the Egyptian Trade-Union Federation (ETUF) is neglected. As a result of being the only official labor organization during the last 3 decades, the ETUF received special privileges and placed under its disposal facilities originally founded for the service of workers. That’s why the text should have mentioned how those assets under exclusive ETUF control should be handled, while confronting the unfair competitive advantage this situation adds to the ETUF at the expense of other independent federations. All workers should benefit from those facilities; that was the original purpose of founding them.

Conclusion

The special significance of the new law, being considered an historical turning point in state-labor relations, does not mean it is sufficient on its own for fixing the accumulating crises in labor relations in Egypt. This law is but a factor within a complex picture of working class conditions. The working class long suffered during the previous decades, yet its struggle was decisive in the historic changes that took place since the revolution. The urgent need for amending the labor law counts as the next major demand for confronting the legislative disorder working in the favor of employers. Practically however, the essential determinant is the political will of the current regime in adjusting the policy of the Egyptian state so it is transformed into a neutral participant in the process of organizing labor relations and their management. Democratic and representative bodies for the workers are ineffective if the only tool for negotiating work conditions is blocked by state intervention and its security apparatus’ repression of strikes; the only available bargaining tool to push employers to the negotiations table.

In the end, the long and tiring road traveled by the workers to bring out the trade union freedom law to light reaffirms that the gains of the working class is not a grant by the state in a gesture of benevolence, rather it requires constant struggling, seizing and defending. This entails great responsibilities the unions must bear in the upcoming stage, especially those recently legitimized by this law. They have crossed a stage of struggling for survival and endurance, now they must aspire to be an effective actor in the public sphere and a tool for workers to realize their ambitions in a better life under the timeless goals of the January revolution: Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.

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