THE Egyptian Cabinet has approved new legislation on trade union freedoms, consenting to pass the law within days.
The new legislation would eliminate many of the constraints imposed on workers’ unions under Law No 35 (1976), which outlined the structural and electoral regulations of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) among other central organisations.
The new law will allow, for the first time since the 1950s, trade union pluralism and freedoms for workers and businessmen to form their own unions and syndicates respectively.
Activists and workers have been waiting impatiently for the final version of the law, hesitant to believe the new Cabinet’s sincerity in advocating union freedoms, particularly after Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s government enacted legislation criminalising strikes and protests in March.
Ali Fatouh, president of the Independent Union for Public Transportation Workers, says: ‘We are waiting for the new law to be promulgated or else the next trade union elections won’t be serious and the steps undertaken against the state-controlled ETUF won’t be very significant.’
‘If there is no commitment to respect the new law, I’ll resign immediately,’ said Ahmed Hassan El-Borai, minister of manpower, in a press conference on Saturday to celebrate the establishment of the Syndicate for Importers of Medical Devices — the first independent syndicate for businessmen.
The actions of the working class were crucial in the lead up to the 25 January uprising, via waves of strikes beginning in 2006, and in the eventual ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February, after a concerted strike effort in the final days of his rule.
At the core of workers’ demands has been the dissolution of the government-controlled ETUF, formed in 1957 under Gamal Abdel Nasser.
An important step forward came on Thursday 4 August when the administration of the ETUF was dissolved via a Cabinet decision to enforce the ruling of a 2006 legal case raised by federation unionists.
The case called for the body’s dissolution on grounds of illegitimate and fabricated results in its general election.
The courts ruled in favour of the prosecution, but as was the case in Mubarak’s Egypt, the ruling was ignored and never enforced.
A 25-member steering committee, appointed by the manpower minister, will run the federation until elections take place, as stipulated by Egyptian law.
‘According to the law, elections should take place within 60 days following the federation’s dissolution, but can be postponed if more time is needed,’ says Saber Barakat, a trade union lawyer and the committee’s vice president.
Due to parliamentary elections, the poll, as they were for local councils, will most likely be postponed until afterwards.
The steering committee’s first task will be the enforcement of other court rulings concerning the nullity of general unions (the umbrella union for each industry) as well as individual factory unions.
This could potentially see 176 factory unions dissolved. Kamal Abou Eita, member of the Egyptian Independent Trade Union Federation (EITUF), among others, has insisted on this point, arguing that electoral and financial corruption is rife within the lower levels of the ETUF.
In the fight for union freedoms, many workers and union leaders, fed up with the state-controlled ETUF, began forming their own independent unions.
The EITUF brought together the first independent unions during the 18-day uprising, announcing its official formation on 2 March.
Reaching an agreement, however, in a committee formed from traditional opponents isn’t the easiest mission. The steering committee has an odd medley of members from across the political spectrum, including: former ETUF board members, EITUF unionists, leftist activists and lawyers, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and counsellors from the manpower ministry.
Khaled Ali, a lawyer and manager of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, says: ‘There will be resistance to such a decision from the old members of the ETUF, but it’s all about enforcing court rulings.’
The new committee looks to be trying to cut ties with the past. Last week the formation of a subcommittee was announced to negotiate demands with workers on strike. ‘We could protest with workers if needed,’ says Barakat.
Members of the ETUF’s administration, Ali pointed out, never organised any kind of protest aiming to obtain any workers’ rights. ‘The only protest they organised was the Battle of the Camel and the only sit-in was to defend their seats,’ he said.
Prime Minister Sharaf’s decision to enforce the ruling saw the general union’s assets frozen until a steering committee examines the entity’s financial affairs.
The committee is expected to review the reports by the Central Auditing Organisation that contains hundreds of infractions and financial remarks linked to the ETUF as well as other organisations under its umbrella.
ETUF members found to have illicit financial dealings will be turned over to the prosecutor-general’s office.
• The public sector minimum wage will also be implemented in the private sector starting from October, Minister of Manpower Ahmed al-Borai said on Saturday.
In press statements following a meeting with representatives from various governorates’ investors associations, Borai said the minimum wage of LE700 will be implemented in all sectors except tourism, which is still suffering after the 25 January revolution.
The minimum wage will be implemented in the tourism sector starting January instead, he said.
Borai also said that projects with fewer than five employees will not be required to implement the minimum wage.
In other news, Borai said there are plans to remove representatives of the dissolved Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions from the boards of holding companies.
They will be replaced by members of the temporary committee running the union’s affairs.
• Train traffic in Cairo and five Nile Delta governorates came to a complete halt last Wednesday, as railway workers went on strike after the Railway Authority declined their request for increased salaries and incentives.
In Tanta, 600 workers on the authority’s short-distance section continued their strike for the second day, demanding salary increases from LE835 to LE1175 per month. They were joined by members of the administration.
The army and the police, together with representatives of the governor, negotiated with the workers.
In Mansoura, trains remained in the station as conductors, who are also demanding salary increases, refused to work. Passengers were left standing on the platforms.
• A recent government study revealed that an average of 33 per cent of household spending on education goes to private lessons, 33 per cent on tuition and 14 per cent on transportation to schools. The study was conducted by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics.
According to the study, which was based on family income and spending in 2008/2009, families spend an average 4.6 per cent of their total household spending on education, which comes as the fifth largest household expense after food, housing, clothes and health care.
The study also found out that the better the quality of education received, the more the family spends on tuition, and the less it spends on private lessons.
The annual spending on private and public primary education in urban areas amounted to 25 per cent of the total spending on education, followed by private university education and public high school education with 16 per cent, public university education with 11 per cent and private high school education with seven per cent.
Public primary education spending in rural areas amounted to 52 per cent of total spending on education, followed by public high school education with 25 per cent, public university education with 11 per cent, private primary education with six per cent and private university education with five per cent.