The law protects the right of workers to form and join independent unions, the right to strike, and collective bargaining, with significant restrictions.
Important elements of the legal framework for worker rights were unclear or contradictory, although the December 25 constitution appeared to provide for freedom of association. In the absence of implementing legislation to reverse pre-2011 labor laws, however, worker rights in practice remained unclear.
In March 2011 the minister of manpower and migration issued a declaration recognizing complete freedom of association. The decree declared the Trade Union Act of 1976 in conflict with the country’s International Labour Organization (ILO) commitments and thus void. Subsequent ministers continued to recognize the March 2011 declaration. Although the Trade Union Act of 1976 remained on the books, the government no longer recognized nor enforced its provisions restricting freedom of association, most significantly a requirement that all unions belong to the previously government-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which had also been the country’s only trade union federation. Articles 52 and 53 of the December 25 constitution protect the right to form trade unions. There is not yet legislation to implement the guarantees of the new constitution, and the existing trade union law contradicts both the constitution and the March 2011 declaration.
Unlike the previous constitution, the December 25 constitution protects the right to “peaceful” strikes, but it remained unclear how this would be regulated in practice. The Unified Labor Law of 2003 permits peaceful strikes but imposes significant restrictions for strikes to be considered legal, including prior approval by a general trade union affiliated with the ETUF. A March 2011 decree by the SCAF criminalizing strikes, protests, demonstrations, and sit-ins that disrupt private or state-owned businesses or impede the economy remained in effect, although some of its provisions expired on May 31 with the end of the state of emergency.
The law provides for collective bargaining but imposes significant restrictions in that the government sets wages and benefits for all public sector and government employees. The law does not provide for enterprise-level collective bargaining in the private sector; it requires centralized tripartite negotiations with workers represented by an ETUF-affiliated union and the Ministry of Manpower overseeing and monitoring collective negotiations and agreements. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Labor laws do not cover agricultural and domestic workers.
Government enforcement of applicable laws was inconsistent, reflecting in part the rapidly evolving legal environment and continuing political transition. It was unclear how new constitutional provisions would affect worker rights. While the government rarely enforced the decree criminalizing most strikes and allowed hundreds of new unions to register, it also occasionally used its powers to arrest striking workers. The government rarely reversed arbitrary dismissals. In practice the requirement for tripartite negotiations in collective disputes seldom was followed, and workers negotiated directly with employers.
When the government did become involved, it most often was for dispute resolution rather than for genuine collective bargaining. Nonetheless, the Manpower Ministry reported receiving 15,000 individual and group complaints from workers during the year, and it claimed to have resolved 80 percent of individual complaints and 90 percent of group disputes through collective negotiations between workers and management, with the remainder referred to courts.
The government took steps to address the continued high rate of strikes and other worker protests during the year. Among the large scale strikes during the year were several public sector strikes, including public school teachers, university workers, doctors and medical employees, transportation workers, and state-owned spinning and weaving factory employees. Workers in ministries also frequently took part in strikes, including 1,200 Manpower Ministry staff in May. In August the Manpower Ministry established a “strike observatory” under the Collective Bargaining Department to better track worker actions and demands across the nation. In August the minister of trade and foreign investment announced a joint committee with the Ministries of Interior and Manpower, as well as ETUF representatives, to find “constructive compromises” to end strikes “within ETUF guidelines.” No additional information was available on the contents of these guidelines.
Workers’ ability to exercise freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining improved over previous years, although significant problems remained. Workers were able to organize and register new labor unions without difficulty. According to the Labor Ministry, as of July a total of 1,428 new trade unions had registered since the March 2011 decree. The ministry registered another 178 unions in the second half of the year after President Morsy took office. There were no reports of unions applying for registration being rejected or unduly delayed. New worker organizations were generally independent of the government and political parties. Two independent trade union federations--the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions and the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress (EDLC)--operated alongside previously state-controlled ETUF.
While no longer directly controlled by the state, the ETUF was seen as vulnerable to government interference. In December President Morsy issued a decree extending the term of the ETUF board for six months or until the passage of a Freedom of Association Law, whichever occurred first. The decree also gives the manpower minister the authority to replace ETUF board members over retirement age and to fill board posts left open for other reasons. The ETUF did receive some advantages from the state. The government halted direct financial support for the ETUF in mid-2011 but continued to permit it to automatically deduct dues from workers’ salaries, reportedly also from workers who had resigned their membership. New unions were unable to do so and had to collect dues from members individually. The government also continued to grant the ETUF proportionately larger representation at the annual International Labour Conference compared with independent federations. ETUF officials continued to fight independent trade unions’ legal rights to represent workers and attacked independent trade unionists in the media and courts. It remained difficult or impossible for workers to disassociate themselves from the formerly state-affiliated ETUF unions, which continued to control worker certifications as well as retirement, medical, and social security benefits for as many as 3.5 million workers.
During the year workers increasingly turned to extralegal means and violence to press their demands. Workers frequently staged sit-ins on government and private property. During a Ceramica Cleopatra Company strike in March, approximately 1,000 workers took then manpower minister Fathi Fekri “hostage” in his office in Cairo before reaching an agreement. Demonstrators also briefly held eight Italian and two Spanish consultants at a Cleopatra factory. On September 20, dozens of workers from the Qouta Iron and Steel Company broke into the Court of Cassation in downtown Cairo, preventing judges and staff from entering the facility until security forces responded.
On a number of occasions, clashes erupted between protesting workers from companies such as Sun Egypt and Egyptian Petroleum Services Co. and security forces outside the presidential palace in Cairo.
Authorities also increasingly used force to disperse violent as well as peaceful strikes and sit-ins. On March 7, military police arrested over 100 Sumid Arab Petroleum Pipeline Factory workers after a two-hour strike. Security forces reportedly beat five men accused of “disrupting navigation in the Suez Canal” and “insulting the armed forces” and detained them for more than 40 days. On September 23, police forcibly dispersed a sit-in by workers at Zagazig University, after which they raided the homes of seven employees and arrested three pending further investigation. On September 17, CSF members surrounded bus garages in Imbaba and Al Mezallat, two of 28 facilities staging a strike; they used force to enter the Al Mezallat garage and arrest a strike leader. Security forces used force to disperse striking teachers outside the governorate headquarters in Dakahlia on October 1, also arresting five persons.
Antiunion discrimination was common, and authorities sometimes charged workers with crimes for union activities.
An increasing number of labor organizers were subject to arrest or other legal sanctions, including after the expiration of the state of emergency on May 31, which negated part of the 2011 antistrike law. For example, on September 23, the Alexandria Misdemeanor Court sentenced five independent trade unionists from the Alexandria Containers Company to three years in prison for “preventing workers from undertaking their duties, inciting strikes, and damage to public funds.” The same day the public prosecutor ordered the arrest of the head of the Railway Workers Union in Qena Governorate after the Railway Authority filed a complaint accusing the employee of “inciting strikes and slowing the pace of work.” On September 17, police arrested Tarek Al Beheiry, spokesperson for an independent union at the Cairo Public Transportation Authority; the authority accused him and three other workers of organizing a strike and rewarded nonstriking workers with 10 days’ extra pay.
Antiunion discrimination occurred particularly against organizers of new independent unions. In the private sector, some employers asserted they were not legally obligated to recognize new unions; given the March 2011 decree was not codified into law, some employers claimed the Trade Union Act (granting a monopoly to the ETUF) still applied. This stance, which was supported by the ETUF, undermined independent unions’ ability to represent members.
Employers frequently refused to bargain unless strike action necessitated government intervention. An increasing number of labor organizers also were subject to harassment and arbitrary dismissal, according to independent labor unions, NGOs, and media reports. Al Sokkary Gold Mine fired 12 workers on September 23, seven of whom belonged to a new independent union; this violated an agreement brokered in June by the Manpower Ministry. On September 19, the Upper Egypt Transportation and Tourism Company fired three independent unionists after accusing them of “visiting company branches to incite workers to strike;” the workers claimed they were traveling to establish facility-level worker organizations. In mid-September, dozens of teachers in Sharkia, Cairo, and Minya were referred to administrative investigation, according to a leading labor NGO. On August 15, the Cadbury Chocolate Company suspended five independent trade union leaders and filed a report with the public prosecutor accusing them of “inciting strikes.” Prosecutors referred the accused to trial.
On February 26, a misdemeanor court in Helwan sentenced EDLC founder and labor NGO leader Kamal Abbas in absentia to six months in prison for “insulting an official figure” (then ETUF president Ismail Fahmy) during an ILO meeting in Geneva in June 2011. In December the court found Abbas not guilty on appeal.