Labor Day would have passed without fanfare were it not for two incidents—one largely symbolic and the other of more immediate concern—which cast a shadow over the state of employment in Egypt, and underscore the need for an honest, serious debate over the future of trade unions and labor relations in the country.
The first incident came courtesy of the president of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. “Egypt’s workers have no demands,” he told the press, ignoring the very raison d’etre of any union, including the organization he heads, which is to represent and advocate the demands of its members. With this sentence, he gave voice to the widespread belief that workers who are truly loyal to the country and its stability should have no demands. His statement stoked fears of renewed state control over unions, turning them once more into a bureaucratic apparatus that works to contain their members’ activities and demands instead of promote their interests.
The second, more significant, incident came on April 18 when the High Administrative Court issued a ruling (case no. 24587/61JY) that bans strikes and forces striking workers into retirement on the grounds that strikes contravene Islamic law, or Sharia. Not only does this judgment violate rights enshrined in the constitution—Article 15 states that “peaceful strikes are a right to be regulated by law”—and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), ratified by Egypt in 1981. It also introduces Sharia to a judicial dispute that has no relation to Islamic legal matters.
The case began on June 13, 2013, when municipal workers in Qurs, Menoufiya Governorate, staged a strike. A few months later, they were referred to a disciplinary court in Menoufiya, which ruled to force them into retirement. The 17 employees appealed the ruling with the High Administrative Court. While the Court Commissioners who review cases before trial sided with the workers, the Court ultimately upheld the decision to forcibly retire three of the workers and levy lesser administrative sanctions on the rest.
This is no place to discuss the incident that prompted the lawsuit, but we must pause at the Court's reasoning. The Court based its ruling on the fact that there is no Egyptian law that regulates strikes, thus ignoring the general legal assumption that things are permissible unless explicitly prohibited, that when Egypt ratified the ICESCR it was on the condition that it not infringe Sharia, and that labour strikes contravene Sharia. The Court thus raised numerous questions that remain unanswered throughout its 33-page written judgment: What bearing does Islamic law have on strikes? Who said strikes were prohibited under Sharia? Why is religion again intruding on matters of state, the basis of our objection to the 2012 Constitution? And where is that promised civil state governed by the Constitution and civil law?
These are just two isolated incidents, but they highlight the need for a serious dialogue over labor relations, workers’ status, and how to balance the rights and liberties of all classes. In recent decades, especially in social democratic Western Europe, the world has seen a growing appreciation of partnership and the balance of interests as a basis for general social welfare, which encourages the private sector to invest and improve efficiency, not at the expense of workers but in cooperation and in response to their demands. This balance cannot be struck by good intentions, government fiat, or even a fair labor law. It must be the product of inclusive negotiations that result in conditions that allow workers a dignified life while enabling employers to turn a profit on their investment.
But a condition of fair employer-worker negotiations is that each party possess the legal tools that allow them to organize and coordinate with colleagues to win the best terms possible. For this reason, the law protects employers’ right to form federations and associations, avail themselves of legal and economic expertise, and meet with government officials and ministers to present research and proposed legislation that advances their interests. In turn, the state has a duty to protect the rights of the other party—workers—to form unions, which exist to guard their interests, not function as an extension of the state. Unions should also make use of legal and economic instruments to clarify their demands and organize their actions, as well as tools like collective bargaining, media outreach, and peaceful strikes. Far from a tool of subversion used to impede the economy or destroy the state, strikes are a legitimate means of negotiation, provided they are regulated by a law that establishes conditions and rules designed to help them meet their objective: a balance between worker and employer interests.
This balance serves the interests not only of workers, but the national welfare because it supports social cohesion and peace. The belief that undermining unions and denying workers the tools of collective bargaining can bring peace and stability is simply wrong and only fuels more tension. Social cohesion is not achieved by the victory of one class, but by balancing competing social interests through legal bargaining and dispute-resolution mechanisms.
- Ziad Bahaa-Eldin holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is a former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investments.
This article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Tuesday 5 May.