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EGYPT: Cracks Appear In Mubarak-Era Labour Body

Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Apr 5 2011 (IPS) - The state-controlled trade union federation that for over half a century was employed by Egyptian rulers to suppress workers’ protests and mobilise voters for sham elections appears to be crumbling with the recent ouster of president Hosni Mubarak.

“There is a movement against state control of unions,” says Mohamed Trabelsi, a regional specialist on union activities at the International Labour Organisation (ILO). “You now have many strikes and labour protests in Egypt, and workers in many sectors have started to organise and form free and independent unions.”

Until recently, all labour union activities and finance in Egypt fell under the umbrella of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). Membership in the state-controlled body was mandatory for most public sector employees, and union dues were automatically deducted from their salaries.

Labour activists charge that Mubarak carefully orchestrated the federation’s elections during his 30-year rule to ensure that union heads were loyal to the regime. ETUF in turn mobilised its four million members for pro-government rallies and bussed workers to polling stations during general elections to vote for the ruling party.

It also suppressed strikes to ensure the state had a steady supply of cheap labour.

“Strikes were only allowed with ETUF permission, which was granted only once,” explains Tamer Fathy, a spokesman for the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS). “The 2003 labour law improved things by allowing workers to strike under certain circumstances, but in practice (the criteria was) nearly impossible to fulfil.”

Cracks had appeared in ETUF’s authority even while Mubarak was in power. Now that he is gone, and his ruling party in tatters, angry workers are pressing to have the federation dissolved and its union heads held accountable.

Prosecutors are also investigating corruption allegations against ETUF president Hussein Megawer. Activists accuse him of misappropriating funds and misrepresenting workers. He is also under separate investigation for his alleged role in organising thugs to attack pro-democracy protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Feb. 2.

The official trade union federation’s power has been on the wane since late 2006, when textile workers in the northern industrial town of Mahalla El-Kubra held a factory sit-in to protest unpaid bonuses. Since then, more than 3,000 labour protests have been organised across Egypt, involving over two million workers in nearly every sector.

In most instances, striking workers have demanded higher wages and better working conditions, as well as the removal of corrupt company managers.

Many workers also accuse ETUF union heads — most of whom are high ranking members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) — of siding with the government and factory owners against them during labour protests, and have called for their impeachment. Their dissatisfaction with the state-backed federation prompted demands for independent unions that are accountable to their members.

Property tax collectors were the first to break from ETUF’s sphere of influence, establishing the Real Estate Tax Authority Union (RETA) in early 2009, Egypt’s first autonomous trade union since 1957. Their historic act, and struggle against ETUF reprisals and intimidation, encouraged workers in other sectors to follow suit.

“Workers have rejected the official trade federation because it has no credibility,” Fathy told IPS. “Its corrupt leadership served the regime (instead of workers) and its decisions came from the top down, not the reverse.”

Labour leaders recently announced the formation of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), a feisty rival to ETUF that groups the independent unions of property tax collectors, teachers, health technicians and pensioners. The upstart labour body claims to represent over 200,000 workers and has received thousands of membership requests from workers in various sectors.

“This is the time for organising strong, independent unions that are far from government influence and are fully democratic,” says Fathy. “Workers want strong representation to be able to sit with their employers and negotiate for better wages and benefits.”

Egypt’s new labour minister, Ahmed El-Borai, is a legal expert on organised labour and a staunch supporter of independent unions. His appointment, which came after protesters adamantly rejected the previous government’s nomination of ETUF treasurer Ismail Fahmy, has cast doubts on ETUF’s future.

At a labour conference in March, El-Borai declared the inalienable right of workers to form independent labour unions and federations in accordance with international labour conventions that Egypt has ratified but long ignored. He said the government would neither interfere with the establishment of syndicates nor attempt to regulate their elections, finances and activities.

The minister also cancelled all state subsidies to ETUF, estimated at nearly 15 million U.S. dollar a year. He said workers should be free to choose their representation, and declared an end to the practice of deducting mandatory ETUF membership fees from employees’ salaries.

In effect, the mammoth labour body must now rely on its ability to convince workers that their union dues will be well spent on defending their economic rights — historically, a weak point for the organisation.

ETUF officials expect their embattled federation will weather the post-Mubarak storm, but sweeping changes in policy and leadership appear inevitable.

“The labour minister is not in a fight with the official (labour union) federation,” says Shendy Abdallah, a vocational trainer at the Workers’ Education Association, an ETUF subsidiary.

“But he is insisting that there should be multiple federations, and this will result in a conflict between them. In the long run, ETUF will need to change its public policy if it is to survive in this climate,” adds Abdallah.

Given the pressure to reform, it appears unlikely that ETUF’s leadership will remain in place until board elections, scheduled for November. Labour activists say no progress can be made until the regime loyalists are removed and a freely elected board is installed in their place.

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