Egyptian Workers Demand The Legal Right To Form Free Trade Unions

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EGYPTIAN labour activists are keenly anticipating a new law on labour syndicates, a draft of which has apparently been completed and which could be enacted within weeks.

It is hoped the law will free workers’ syndicates from state control and so improve the working conditions of Egyptian labourers, which deteriorated severely under the rule of toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

The Manpower and Immigration Ministry declared last week that the draft of the law had reached its final form following discussions with independent labour leaders and rights organisations.

Legal experts describe the draft law as offering a boost to labour rights and as one of the major achievements of the 25 January revolution.

‘The new law grants workers the right to form syndicates without restrictions being imposed by the state,’ says Kamal Abbas, coordinator for the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS).

Once enacted, the draft law will cancel the Trade Union Law, passed in 1976, which codified the Egyptian state’s control over the formation, regulation and financial oversight of syndicates, turning them into institutions closely affiliated with the state.

According to the 1976 law, all workers’ syndicates were required to join one of the 23 general unions of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), a state-controlled organisation during the Mubarak era.

According to the draft law, however, syndicates will manage their own regulations and finances. They will also report directly to the Manpower and Immigration Ministry, which will be responsible for syndicate affairs.

‘The existing law ensured the domination of workers’ syndicates by the state-controlled ETUF, imposing strict conditions on its members, while forcing them to abide by laws that served businessmen close to the former regime,’ says Kamal Abbas.

The new law is designed to bring an end to this domination, he says.

Under the current law, the ETUF is the supreme authority for workers’ affairs, writing policy for the affiliated syndicates and supervising all of their affairs, including approving budgets and administrative regulation.

It also has the right to withdraw its support from members of the affiliated syndicates. The new draft law is expected to give syndicates the authority to run their own affairs.

‘The Egyptian Trade Union Federation was originally established to create union among the syndicates, which means the federation dominates the syndicates, not the other way round,’ says Khaled Aly, executive director of the Egyptian Centre for Social and Economic Rights.

In early August, the Prime Minister dissolved the board of the ETUF after a court statement declared that the board’s elections in 2006 were rigged.

A new temporary committee was formed to run the ETUF’s affairs until new elections are held.

However, it is expected that once the new board comes into place, it will not have the power to interefere in the internal affairs of syndicates within the federation, in accordance with the new law.

The new law creates a system by which syndicates are responsible for their own financial oversight, supervised by a committee composed of three members elected from different syndicates.

If the ministry notices any violations, it can resort to a legal process, but cannot penalise the syndicates on its own.

Aly says that the shifting of financial management to the syndicates themselves is an attempt to empower the membership, who establish and maintain their syndicates from their own efforts and finances, in order to achieve fair working conditions and better representation.

The new draft law also prevents syndicates from receiving donations from foreign sources, unless they are members of international labour organisations or the money is for technical support purposes.

The draft law will not change the conditions for the election of presidents, directors or board members of syndicates.

However, it does authorise syndicates to name which court should monitor their elections, and terms are now limited to four years, instead of five. The old law authorised the Justice Ministry to select the judicial authority responsible for overseeing the elections of each syndicate.

Aly also supports an article within the draft law that bans the establishment of syndicates on religious or partisan grounds, clarifying that the new law aims to create pluralism inside syndicates without discrimination, unlike the former regime.

One of the draft law’s articles stresses that business owners cannot compel their workers to join a syndicate of which the owner is a member.

‘This article gives laborers legal confidence. Workers can, for the first time, negotiate with their employers without administrative reservations,’ says Kamal Abbas.

Around 33 trade unions, NGOs and civil society institutions have given their approval to the proposed law, which is to be reviewed by cabinet in the coming days.

• In the second session of the criminal prosecution of Hosni Mubarak on Monday, the judge, Ahmad Refaat, joined the former president’s case to that of former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly and banned live television coverage of the trial from now on.

Refaat also ordered the adjournment of Mubarak’s trial until 5 September.

‘Until today, these are very normal proceedings and the judge is making what seem to be sensible decisions,’ said Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer who is representing the families of those killed during the uprising that led to Mubarak’s downfall.

Mubarak, Adly, and six senior interior ministry officials stand accused of conspiring to kill protesters during the uprising.

Mubarak is also charged, along with his two sons and businessman Hussein Salem, of squandering public funds and profiteering. Mubarak’s sons stood beside their father on Monday in the defendants’ cage, while Salem, who is in Spain, is being tried in abstentia.

Mubarak was flown to the Police Academy, where the trial is being held on the outskirts of Cairo, from the International Medical Center where he is hospitalised.

He appeared in the courtroom’s cage lying on a stretcher, with an IV on his left hand side. Mubarak reportedly suffers from a variety of health problems and his doctors’ testimony has been requested for later on in the trial.

The defendants did not speak during the three-hour-long session, except at the beginning to announce that they were ‘present’ when called by the judge.

Refaat’s decision to merge Adly’s and Mubarak’s cases was in direct response to a demand from Sameh Ashour, a lawyer arguing civil claims on behalf of those killed during the uprising.

‘The decision to join the two cases is correcting Abdel Salam Gomaa’s mistake to separate them to begin with,’ said Gamal Eid, who also heads the Arab Network for Human Rights Information.

Gomaa is the Criminal Court judge who previously oversaw Adly’s case before it was transferred to Refaat.

‘Consolidating both cases into one means that the court is acknowledging the killing of the protesters as one incident,’ said lawyer Ahmed Ragheb, executive director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre.

This also means that the incidents in question will be evaluated equally, so that Adly cannot be charged with murder while Mubarak is charged with involuntarily manslaughter in the same case.

‘This also makes for a better situation for the lawyers who would be able to prepare for a consolidated case, instead of having to run between different courts trying the same incident, on behalf of the same plaintiffs (but against different defendants),’ Ragheb added.

Ashour had also demanded that the conspiracy to murder charges be separated from the corruption charges to ensure a better process. Refaat did not respond to this demand.

In his final statements following an hour-long court recess, Refaat also announced that the upcoming hearings won’t be broadcast on television in order to ‘maintain public interest.’

Calls for public and transparent trials for figures of the former regime have been a main demand from protesters since Mubarak’s ouster in February.

Gamal Eid assumes that one of the reasons behind the decision to take the trial off air is to decrease the number of lawyers in the courtroom.

‘Some may be opportunists who are looking for a spot on television. This would allow the rest of the lawyers and the judge himself to focus more on the proceedings,’ Eid said.

Referring to Sunday’s hearing, Refaat said during Monday’s hearing: ‘We wanted to hold the case on a daily basis but it became impossible because of lack of order.

‘The list of lawyers demanding to speak has exceeded 100 names. We won’t continue the trial unless order and silence are restored.’

He added: ‘We surmounted many obstacles in order to preserve everyone’s rights. The martyrs’ families’ lawyers have rights as well as the defendants. We don’t mind receiving all demands in writing and we need to avoid redundancy.’

Meanwhile, Eid added that not airing the trial on television doesn’t mean it is no longer public.

‘There are still lawyers, journalists and activists present to make it public,’ he said.