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ILO reprimands Cairo over labour rights in Egypt

by Tom Rollins

The struggle for recognition of independent trade unions has been brought back into the spotlight, following an official letter by the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) director-general to the Egyptian government.

ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, in a letter to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, recently called on the Egyptian government to “ensure the application of the international labour Conventions on freedom of association.”

Ryder also called on the Egyptian government to revoke a recent ban prohibiting official recognition of independent trade unions.

Last month, the government ruled that stamps of independent unions were no longer valid on official documents; something that officials have justified by arguing that independent unions violate Law 35 of year 1976, which prohibits union pluralism. Others point to Article 76 of Egypt’s 2014 Constitution, which states that establishing workers’ organisations “on [a] democratic basis is a right guaranteed by law.”

The ILO argues that the ban goes against ILO conventions on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (Convention 87) and the Application of the Principles of the Right to Organise and to Bargain Collectively (Convention 98). Egypt ratified both conventions in the 1950s.

Secretary-general of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), Gebaly al-Maraghy, lashed out at the ILO in comments to privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm on Sunday, calling Ryder’s letter “an unwarranted interference in Egypt’s affairs.”

Maraghy meanwhile called for an “official statement to condemn this intervention into the affairs of Egypt, or any other Arab state.”

ETUF, founded in 1957 under leftist President Gamal Abdel Nasser, has often been regarded as an arm of the state, closely parroting the government’s line on various aspects of policy including strikes and elections.

Late last year, a statement by independent labour rights organisation, the Centre for Trade Unions and Workers’ Services (CTUWS), argued that ETUF “totally lacks independence and remains unable to represent workers.” The statement came in response to a government bulletin, reportedly including directives from the Presidency and government ministries, calling on ministers to coordinate with ETUF rather than independent unions, Al-Masry Al-Youm’s English-language site reported.

Kamal al-Fayoumi, a striker leader during the landmark 6 April 2008 anti-government protests in Mahalla, told Equal Times that workers receive “no help from the ETUF, which is an illegal union and part of the corruption [of the state].”

Although Fayoumi steered short of criticising President Sisi, Fayoumi warned that government intransigence could lead to a “more unified labour movement.”

Although a longstanding aim of that labour movement, the fight to recognise independent trade unions gained significant ground after the 25 January uprising in 2011.

In 2009, strikers established an independent union representing real estate authority tax collectors was formed — the first such independent organisation in Egypt. By 2010, the labour movement was one of the most significant forces in Egyptian society pushing for reform.

Joel Beinin, a Stanford University professor and expert on labour movements in Egypt and the broader Arab world, previously wrote that despite facing ETUF monopoly as well as internal divisions and lack of resources, the independent union movement “mounted high-profile strikes that have put the demands for workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining rights squarely on Egypt’s political agenda.”

Tübingen University professor Marie Duboc, meanwhile, told Equal Times that the rising “number of [independent] unions since 2011 indicates the importance of trade unions in representing a wide range of social groups, including the ones that had no former representation within ETUF.”

Nevertheless, she added, “The creation of hundreds of unions and several federations…has not led to the recognition of trade union pluralism.”

The ILO’s latest statements come as Egypt comes under growing pressure over the murder of Italian researcher Guilio Regeni, who many believe was arrested, tortured and then killed by the Egyptian security services. Regeni was researching workers’ movements in Egypt at the time of his death. His body was found dumped by a roadside between Cairo and Alexandria on 4 February, a week after his disappearance was first reported. Regeni’s body bore signs of horrific torture.

At a March session of the ILO Governing Body regarding “the threat to human and trade union rights in Egypt,” the Workers’ Group expressed outrage over Regeni’s death. Ryder, the ILO’s director-general, has also called on the Egyptian government to “expeditiously clarify all the facts.”

Italy recently recalled its ambassador over the incident, citing the need for "an urgent evaluation” into the steps needed to "ascertain the truth about the barbaric murder of Giulio Regeni,” the BBC reported.

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