Troubled birth : Egyptian trade union freedom law Journey over the past eight years


Adel Zakaria - a member of Arab network of union journalists

Egypt – Since the January revolution2011, Egypt witnessed seven successive governments ,three Republic presidents, two elected legislatures, and three different constitutions yet the law regulating trade unions, known as the trade union freedoms law is still locked in drawers

This law is one of the most important worker’s demands over the past years. Despite the issuance of nearly 700 laws over those years, the trade union freedoms law did not see the light until now. The successive Governments have been promising to issue the law and many of these governments started with  draft laws and it reached to more than 5 draft laws, and because each draft law express certain political status they are now contradict with each other. 

The first version of the draft law came before January revolution, specifically in 2008, after a wave of labour strikes that started since 2004, and that wave of strikes stressed the need for a new law to substitute the existing law number 35 of 1976 and dubbed as nationalization of the Trade Unions Act. The year 2005 saw 202 labour protests, and has risen to 222 in the following year, then 617 in 2007.

However, the year 2006 will be recorded in the history of the Egyptian working class, for it has  seen the biggest labour actions Egypt ever seen.  Most of the big companies and factories in Egypt struck to demand better work conditions and better wages, in addition to  withdraw confidence from the trade union committees within those companies, as they follow the state controled Federation of trade unions, and it is the only permitted  trade unions according to law No. 35 of 1976

No one can overlook the significance of the labour movement timing in 2006. It came after union elections, labour’s  movements proved that these elections were unfair. Only few weeks after union elections around 24000 yarn workers in Mahalla declared a general strike to demand their rights. The workers succeeded in withdrawing the confidence from the union committee in addition to gain their economic demands, as they collected more than 15,000 signatures from members of General Assembly estimated at 23,943 members, this  move was legal according to  the law 35 Article 26, paragraph (b) .


 Later a delegation of workers from the company went to deliver the signatures to the General Association of Textile affiliates, demanding to conduct a new trade union elections, the General Union of the Trade Union Federation of Egyptian Workers rejected to withdraw confidence from their committee!!

First draft law

Labor movements always come from outside the governmental trade union organization, that’s why The Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services launched a campaign to demand the abolition of legal restrictions on the right to form trade unions, and it announced the completion of the new drafting law for trade unions called the "trade union freedoms law."

Dr. Ahmed Hassan El-Borai an expert in social legislation and former Minister of Labour talked about his participation in forming the first draft law, and said “in 2008 The Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS) hired me to help with the draft law to substitute the existing law. Indeed, after several workshops we completed drafting the bill, which included many of the basic principles that are consistent with the freedom of workers to form unions the way they want. The draft law prevented the administrative body to interfere in their affairs, as the boards of directors of trade union come through free and fair elections.

El-Borai also said that the draft law allowed the establishment of trade unions without prior permission, just by filing incorporation papers and an emphasis on Notional grassroots personal (trade union committees) and grant him all the powers so that they can play their role in the negotiation and litigation.

The draft law also insured the right to join or withdraw from trade unions, and ensure special protection for the leaders of the trade unions. In addition, the law also contained a text that forbid dissolving a trade union by administrative decision but it should be by a judicial ruling or decision reflex of the workers themselves, and the control over the associations' funds are self-censorship, not by the government.


Rahmeh Refaat  the legal adviser of the CTUWS said:”At a time when the center launched its campaign to complete the first trade union freedom law in 2007, approximately 55,000 employees from real estate taxes staged a sit-in rally in front of the Egyptian Cabinet headquarters to demand better work conditions equal to their colleagues, who work in public IRS”. Because of this protest, which lasted more than a week, came the idea of ​​creating the first independent trade union in Egypt for the staff of real estate taxes, and they declared their secession from the Egyptian Federation of Trade  Unions, who stood firmly against their strike. And that  proved the extent need for a law that insure the principles of union freedom.

the wave of labour strikes quickly spread and moved from the public sector to the private sector, and from old industrial areas to new industrial cities, and reached to sectors that never saw a strike before, such as teachers, doctors and staff.  And because of teacher’s protests the second independent union was established in Egypt, and protests of workers in the health sector resulted at establishing the independent trade union of health professionals.

El Borai draft law

On the twelfth of March 2011 following the Egyptian revolution, Dr. Ahmed Hassan El-Borai, Minister of Manpower - at the time - who had just assumed office, sat with Juan Somavia, Director-General of the International Labour Organisation at the time,  and declared at a press conference issuance of trade union freedom law in Egypt.

The declaration was a quick response to the demands of freedom and social justice that reflected itself clearly through the labor movement that swept the scene in the ninth and tenth from February 2011.

This announcement was a declaration of good intentions, and commit to  obligations under ILO Conventions ratified  by Egypt  half a century ago, and the fulfillment of core labour standards entitlements which had become one of the regime crises.

Although this announcement was not, and still is not, enough to address the imbalance and tension on the labour arena, although it was only a partial temporary solution that will not be completed without a trade union freedoms law or rather cancel the defective law based to restrict trade union work (Law 35 of 1976, as amended). . .. Nevertheless, the declaration of trade union freedoms would move the stagnant water .. where workers were able to establish hundreds of independent trade unions .. many of the workers knew their stolen rights, and found their way into practice, many of the workers were able to taste what it  feels like to join an independent union that is not state-owned enterprises.

After the declaration, the Egyptian Minister of Labour Dr Borai formed a committee to draft the trade union freedom law. Counselor Abdel Hamid Bilal chairman of the committee at that time, say: the committee was formed to prepare a new law in 2011, and it has been granted full independence.  The committee members were two of the heads of the Egyptian Court of Cassation, and the heads of the union’s judicial circuits, for their expertise, also two professors of social legislation in law schools, and vice president of the Egyptian Federation of trade unions at that time, in addition to two civilian staff at the Ministry of Manpower.

The main axes for the Committee's work was to draft a law in line with the ILO conventions numbers 87 and 98 to avoid ILO notes. The committee prepared a first draft and put forward for community dialogue on the May 1, 2011, and began to receive notes from civil society organizations and labour unions. The most prominent features of the law was to give full freedom for workers to form unions, and put a penalty on the employer who refrains from establishing trade union in the factory, and the need for a financial committee to be elected with the union elections to oversee financial supervision enjoying full independence and not subject to dismissal.

However, this draft has met opposition from the Egyptian Federation of Trade union although their representative did not file any written notes throughout the social dialogue, but in the last discussion sessions, specifically in 13th June 2011 the Vice President of the Union requested 17 amendment to the draft law. 14 of them were approved from all of parties of the dialogue because it all were  formalities, while the other three objections were on trade union pluralism within a single facility, and they also objected the presence of more than one union at the national level, and was refused because it was against freedom of association.

The third opposition was on an article that separates the trade union membership requirement to obtain benefits from the special fund, which was owned by Union federations.  All of which were objections in order to preserve personal gains they have achieved over the past years, and later they declared their opposition to the law.

Brotherhood draft

The Egyptian parliament elections came in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood won largest number of seats, still  trade union freedoms law locked drawers.

 Although Muslim Brotherhood participated in the discussion of the draft former trade union freedoms law referred to (El-Borai) Act, in the first months following the Egyptian revolution in 2011, and despite their declaration that they were with the rights of workers in establishing independent trade unions, they gradually began to retreat from those promises once they got control of power.

 The trade union freedoms law hindered again in the corridors of parliament with Muslim Brotherhood majority, and continued to block the law even after the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, who had the choice to decree the law, but he did not.

Facing workers' demands and the pressures of the International Labour Organization, Khaled Azhary Minister of Manpower, who belongs to “ Freedom and Justice” Brotherhood Party, decided then to start a new draft  law, ignoring what has been agreed upon in Dr. Ahmed Hassan El-Borai draft. They started over and formed a new committee and held social dialogue for months, then came out with a new draft trampled on trade union freedoms standards and gained acceptance from the Egyptian Federation of trade unions, and severe objections by independent unions.

Dr. Ahmed Hassan El-Borai, former Minister of Manpower said:  "Brotherhood law includes contradictory texts, because they transferred some texts from the draft law we finished it 2011, but they insisted to unify between union entities by proportional representation". El Borai  wondered how can they implement proportional representation when there is another text states that there should be no diversity in one facility, making their law contradicts itself,".

Saad Shaaban, head of the Egyptian Democratic Labour Union says: Workers rejected the Muslim Brotherhood law because it did not reflect their interests, rather was expressing the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic movements.

 the law was includes texts  that interfere extensively with the freedom of workers to establish their organizations, trade unions own, as well as the imposition pyramidal format that puts all the power in the hands of the board of Directors of trade Union. in addition to having distinctions within certain unions, it also prohibits trade union pluralism within a single facility.

Kamal Abbas, the general coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Workers' Services, adds that the Brotherhood intended to control the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions and owning its assets by this law. noting that in one of the social dialogue sessions that  the Muslim Brotherhood minister  called for was mostly attended  by  members of “ Freedom and Justice” Party, whether unionists or members parliament at that time.

Abbas pointed out that the Brotherhood draft contradicted in many of its articles with international conventions ratified by Egypt , it also distinguish against independent unions. The darft law stipulates that in order to form an independent union 250 thousand members should be gathered, while the state controlled Union has 3 million compulsory membership, wondering: " Why did the minister did not consider El  Borai law that he  took part in drafting it.

Abu Eita law

Following the events of June 30, 2013 that led to the collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood rule, Counselor Adly Mansour was chosen by the military to be Egypt's interim president, and Dr Hazem Beblawi the liberal economic expert  formed interim government.

 Kamal Abu Eita the head of the first independent union in Egypt and the head of the Egyptian Federation of independent trade unions was appointed as the minister of manpower and immigration, he then announced that among the conditions to assume the ministry is to issue a new law on trade union freedoms.

 Kamal Abu Eita says about that period: "When I assumed  the ministry, the scene was chaotic  in the absence of legislations that regulate trade unions,  trade unions were controlled by a state controlled Union doomed to cancel its elections since 2006, and is managed by a specific management committee until labour elections. While independent unions are in the scene without a law regulating and supervising them. That was a reason why I formed a committee to prepare a new draft Law on freedom of Association. We asked all worker representatives to attend the social dialogue, they all agreed to the new draft, and I have all the written approvals on the draft law, including representatives of the Union federations of Egypt workers that rejected the draft law later. The law was referred to cabinet but has been cornerstone in the drawers of the government, without giving any reasons. "

The reasons the Federation rejected the draft law came in an official statement said that the draft  includes a negative impact on the national economy and create chaos among the workers at this critical and sensitive stage. It falsified the facts that have been agreed upon with the Manpower Minister Kamal Abu Eita, did not include the 18 amendments made by the Union aimed at the national interest and not to cause chaos.

The statement called for an urgent meeting with Dr. Hazem Beblawy, the Prime Minister, to explain the dangers that would result from passing the law. Stressing that the current draft came to achieve foreign intervention targets, and to demolish the state’s institutions, including the legitimate union organization.

The statement also pointed out that the federation and its trade unions decided to organize campaigns to reveal the plan led by Kamal Abu Eita and a number of current ministers and workers in some international offices to destroy the nation "..

Majdi Al Badawi, the Vice President of the Egyptian Federation of Trade unions, explains why they rejected the draft law, saying that it allowed pluralism, and that it is not reasonable to have one facility with more than one trade union committee, because it spread chaos, and also when bargaining and negotiating the employer who will represent the workers.

Abu Aita says that the conflict between the independent union and the federation represent a deviation in the behavior of those who speak on behalf of the working class, the basic principle is that everyone should unit to defend workers' rights. There are only six million worker under the umbrella trade union organizations, 2 million of them belong to the state controlled union, while 4 million belong to independent unions. There are more than 20 million workers, deprived from trade union organization, so the unions essentially do not represent workers, therefore the most strike sites are those lacking trade unions such as the city of Mahalla. The iron and steel companies , Obriat Samanoud, they are all affiliated the General Federation, and had no pluralism.

Then the minister Kamal Abu Eita leaves the minister and  Nahed Al Ashrey assume it and she begins with another flight to the work on a new draft law that sees a lot  of controversy and form a number of committees and social dialogues the she leaves the ministry with the law.

The last stations

Months passes, and the conflict between the independent unions and the Federation stays the same. Then comes the  last Labour Conference No. 105, which sharply criticized Egypt over the process of issuing the law, where they criticized the lack of harmony between unions that currently exists in Egypt, warning from escalating actions against Egypt if they don’t  approve the new Law before the next session of the Conference in 2017.

The Conferences criticized the process of nominating a representative of Egyptian Workers because it did not proceeded according to Egypt's obligations with work ILO. The conference expressed deep concern over the absence of any progress to issue the new law, which the Egyptian government previously said that it will be adopted during 2015, while it issued regulations that would  influence the specific activities of independent trade unions.

This made the current minister Mohammed safan rush job and draft a new law, that  was approved by the Egyptian Cabinet, and was sent to the Egyptian House of Representatives, which is expected to discuss it next October.

The draft law has raised the ire of independents who have found that the law does not give freedom to  trade unions. Saad Shaaban, head of the Egyptian Democratic Labour Union says, the law is a modified version of law no. 35 for the year 1976. Stressing that the requirement of 250 thousand workers to form a union is not easy. He also said that  the law left the door open for Article 27 as it came in favor of the leaders of the General Federation of trade unions.

Shaaban believes that Article II ensured the survival of the federation’s  current situation as it is contrary to the independent trade unions, which must reconcile their positions according to the new law, pointing out that the law maintained a pyramidal shape for labour formations, which union leaders objected it..

Ali Saleh, President of the Regional Association of Sadat City Trade Unions believes that the state intervention in determining the number of Workers in a trade unionis a  flagrant violation of the right of workers to form unions.  Pointing out that the new law is an attempt to revive the labour union again, through administrative procedures, which stipulated by the new law in order  to dismantle the independent unions, so that they can regain control of the . he also indicates that the current law try to escape from ILO conventions

On the same level, Dr. Ahmed Hassan El-Borai - former Minister of Manpower – said that there are two judicial provisions of the Constitutional Court that allow trade union pluralism, one in 1995 provided for the establishment of trade unions without prior permission, and gave the full right to workers to  manage their unions without the interference of the executive authority, which means that the law is unconstitutional. The current situation of the country cannot afford an appeal in at the constitutional Court, if it  contradict the Constitution of 2014 which recognized trade union freedoms in its articles 76 and 93.

President of the Independent Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions Malek Bayoumi says that the 2014 constitution, which the House of Representatives was elected base on it, is the one who allowed the formation of independent trade unions in Article 76, which stipulates that "the creation of syndicates and unions on a democratic right basis guaranteed by law, and shall have legal personality and operates freely, and contribute to raise the level of efficiency among its members, and defend their rights, and protect their interests as the state guarantee the independence of trade unions and federations, boards of directors may not be dissolved without a court order may not be created in statutory bodies.”

Bayoumi said, the trade union organizations law is one of the supplements laws of the Constitution,. Article 76 was prescribed by law in a specific framework illustrated by Article 93 of the Constitution, which guarantees committing to conventions ratified by Egypt's to become part of the national laws, and guarantees the right of workers to organize unconditionally and without interference from any party and made available to all workers.

Talal shukur, a member of the Advisory Board of the Egyptian Democratic Labour Union, said that the draft law that will be presented to parliament is the same law no. 35 of 1976, which prohibits trade union pluralism, but with new wording. The new draft guaranteed the formation of trade unions only for 6 categories, ignoring the retired workers. while the draft of 2013 of Abu Eita  the project 2013 law that consensus around the workers in the era of former Minister Kamal Abu Eita gave this right to nearly 12 categories, Article II of Chapter II, in part, stipulate that the law includes state civilian employees, local management, public institutions and government agencies of particular companies and workers of the public sector and the public business sector and the private sector, the cooperative sector and the employment of irregular seasonal employment and domestic workers.

shukur also objected to identify the number of former committees of trade union and public unions and federations as stated in Articles 13 and 15 of Part II of the law. He Cited that the ILO does not prefer to talk about the numbers in order to facilitate establishing of trade unions.

 Shukur explained that associations and trade unions had coincided that it is the right of every 50 workers to establish a trade union committee at the facility, but the new law identified 100 workers to establish a Committee, and 30 thousand for the general union, and 250 thousand for the federation, what will make the issue of establishing trade unions very hard on the workers.

On the other hand Mohammed Waheb Allah, Secretary-General of the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions and Vice Chairman of the workforce House of Representatives, said that the current circumstances in Egypt do require a collaboration between the General Federation and Independent Trade Unions. And those who wish to serve the labour movement should unify to reach  to a strong trade union entity aims for stability in all work sites.

He added: "But at the same time we must stress that the independent unions that sprang up after the January 25 revolution did not lead to a real result in favor of the workers as they should have, from my experience, these unions contributed significantly to the destruction of many of the work sites, everyone now is in conflict and clash with the other and it is an inevitable result of the multiplicity of trade unions. "

He explained that as a parliament member he will work to pass the Trade Unions Act in the new format to achieve stability. If the unions are willing as they say serving the working-class, they should go through a formal public unions and if they are good candidate they surely will be elected,  we reject the parallel entities because it  leads to confusion.

Continuation of the resistance
The leaked copy of the draft law submitted by the government to the House of Representatives, made the independent unions announce emergency and the need to confront them to not issue the law  this way, and called it "trade union disaster."

Egyptian Democratic Labour Union launched the Federation a campaign to raise awareness of among workers of the dangers of this law, contact the media to expose the anti-liberties union government practices, and contact with members of the Egyptian Parliament to avoid the issue of law in this way.

of the Center for Trade Union Services launched a panel discussion held in 23 june, attended by representatives of independent trade unions and a number of legal and economic experts and the Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the House of Representatives.

Participants issued a declaration of principles on the legislative framework for the work of the trade union and standards that must be adhered to when developing a new law on trade unions that respects international conventions and agreements signed by Egypt for the right to organize (private conventions 87.98), and commit to the text of Article 76 of the Constitution.

Attendees also agreed to draft  a law that takes all this into account, and submit it to the House of Representatives in the face of state law, which has already been done MP Mohamed Anwar Sadat, President of the Human Rights in the House of Representatives, after collecting the signature of 65 MPs (as stipulated in Council Regulation), chairman of the Board referred the law to the legislative committee of the council as a prelude to discuss it.



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