Dozens of state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) workers began a sit-in in front of the federation’s Cairo headquarters on Wednesday to protest what they claim are measures being taken by Egypt’s manpower minister to destroy the country’s burgeoning labour movement.
Protesters blocked Galaa Street in downtown Cairo, where the ETUF building is located, bringing traffic to a standstill. They also performed Muslim noon prayers in the middle of the street, vowing not to depart until their grievances were addressed.
Protesters expressed fury with Manpower Minister Ahmed El-Borai’s decision in August to dismiss the ETUF executive board. Following the board’s dissolution, the Cabinet then commissioned El-Borai to select a temporary board to run the federation until new elections could be held under judicial supervision.
The minister then appointed a 25-member steering committee that has run the federation’s affairs ever since.
According to trade union laws, a new executive board must be elected within 60 days of the board’s dissolution. Much to the chagrin of ETUF workers, however, the temporary board continues to manage the federation six months later.
Workers are now demanding that a date for new elections be announced before the end of the board’s current electoral term on 27 November. They also express frustration that 13 members of the current interim board, who are from independent syndicates, were given important portfolios, including those of treasury, holding companies and health insurance.
Workers are also furious that El-Borai was allowed to appoint current board members.
“The federation is supposed to mediate between workers and the government, but most workers’ grievances can be attributed to government policy,” said protester Ahmed Farouk. “How can they let a minister, a government employee, choose the federation’s board members?”
These sentiments were echoed in a statement distributed at the sit-in, which condemned El-Borai’s “interference” in ETUF affairs. The statement also warned that the minister’s handpicked board members were actively working to destroy the federation’s legitimacy and bolster that of the independent syndicates.
“We warn Egypt’s honourable workers that attempts are afoot to degrade the authority of the legitimate trade union federation,” the statement reads. “They’re doing this by failing to announce a date for syndicate elections so that El-Borei can destroy the federation and allow what they call ‘independent syndicates’ to control workers’ unions.”
Workers in the state-run union also want the current steering committee to be purged of all independent trade union members so as to consist exclusively of ETUF members.
“We want to restore the federation’s legitimacy,” said protester Nadia Mohamed. “All these workers from the independent syndicates only work for themselves – we don’t want them.”
ETUF workers further accuse El-Borai of being biased in the favour of independent trade untions.
In addition to ordering the dissolution of the ETUF executive board, the manpower minister also approved a “Syndicate Freedom Law” aimed at eliminating some of the constraints imposed on workers’ unions under the hated Trade Union Law No. 35 of 1976. The new law is expected to allow workers to freely establish trade unions for the first time since the 1950s.
While the law has yet to be ratified by Egypt’s ruling military council, as many as 90 independent syndicates have already been established in recent months – an enormous number considering that, during the Mubarak era, there had only been three independent syndicates.
The developments have led many federation workers to accuse El-Borai of intentionally trying to weaken Egypt’s nascent labour movement.
“The syndicates are supposed to take workers’ grievances to the government, and should therefore all fall under the same body,” Farouk said. “But with the emergence of all these new syndicates, you might have five or six different representatives approaching the minister with lists of demands.”
He added: “Wouldn’t it make more sense if we only had one representative to speak for all of us?”
Another protester, who preferred anonymity, told Ahram Online that most workers opposed the new Syndicate Freedom Law, currently being considered by the SCAF. According to the protester, the law – which ostensibly aims to ease constraints on the creation of independent syndicates – will ultimately be used at the federation’s expense.
“They want to challenge us and our power,” one demonstrator asserted. “The minister is biased. He has already dissolved several general unions, and we fear the ETUF will be next.”