The Solidarity Center supports worker rights advocates in Egypt.
Click on image to read Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt (2010)
Click on image to read an interview with Rahma Refaat, Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services
CTUWS Coordinator Kamal Abbas and RETA President Kamal Abu Eita describe the role of workers and the independent labor movement in Egypt's revolution. Click on arrows to view full screen.
For the thousands of workers who helped lead Egypt’s February 2011 revolution, a new day has dawned. On March 12, 2011, the International Labor Organization (ILO) hailed the Egyptian Minister of Manpower and Migration’s historic recognition of workers’ right to form independent trade unions, free from government interference, that represent their interests. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of Egypt’s workers and union activists, workers will finally be able to freely join representative trade unions and bargain with the government and employers to ensure that economic development works for all Egyptians.
The road to freedom of association in Egypt was long. From 1952–2011, Egyptians were subject to an autocratic government backed by the military establishment. Basic civil liberties and human rights, including freedom of association, were severely restricted. No trade unions could form outside the government-dominated Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and its 23 affiliated general labor unions, whose leaders were closely tied to the ruling party. Egypt was one of 25 “individual cases” discussed by the Committee of Experts on the Application of Standards at the ILO’s 2008 International Labor Conference, and the ILO requested that the Egyptian government revise the Trade Union Law to bring it into compliance with core labor standards.
In 2004, high unemployment, stagnant wages, loss of benefits, and dramatic price increases on basic items were key influences in a wave of worker protests. Starting in textile factories, the protests quickly spread to the transport, food service, and construction sectors. White-collar professions such as teachers, journalists, and tax collectors joined, and eventually workers from all sectors at all economic and social levels were involved. Even though local union committees refused to authorize strikes, and ETUF leaders refused their support, workers continued to strike for their rights in their individual workplaces without ETUF authorization (required by Egyptian labor law).
As the protest movement grew, workers also started to campaign against the official trade union structure. They began to demand the right to form independent unions that would represent the interests of their members, and not the ruling party.
In April 2009, the Real Estate Tax Authority Union (RETA) submitted its application to the Egyptian government for recognition as Egypt’s first independent trade union. RETA was subsequently accepted as an affiliate of Public Services International (PSI), the Global Union Federation that represents more than 20 million public-sector workers worldwide. Following RETA’s lead, teachers, technical health workers, and pensioners also organized independent unions. On January 30, 2011, taking advantage of the increased freedom created by the revolution, these four independent unions came together, along with industrial workers from other sectors and the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), a 20-year-old NGO working in support of worker and trade union rights in Egypt, to form the Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions.
Since 2006, the Solidarity Center has coordinated with the global labor movement to help Egyptian workers promote freedom of association. The Solidarity Center has:
Provided technical assistance to labor support organizations such as non-governmental and human rights organizations.
Facilitated connections between worker organizations and other members of the global labor movement.
Supported their education and advocacy campaigns.
Participated in solidarity campaigns with Egyptian workers.
In 2010, the Solidarity Center published an in-depth report on working conditions in Egypt and the worker rights movement, Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, in both English and Arabic for widespread distribution.
Egypt: Cement Workers Seek to Shed Low-Wage Temporary Status. March 15, 2013—Mohammed Hamid, a cement worker in Alexandria, Egypt, has worked for the same company for 12 years. Yet he says he is classified as “temporary,” which means he makes far less than full-time workers and receives no benefits. Many of his co-workers are in the same position. So in February, he and other workers at Portland Cement waged a sit-in at the corporate office—and were routed by more than 1,000 security forces with attack dogs and electric prods. Several workers suffered injuries, including broken bones.
Charges Dropped Against Egyptian Trade Union Leader. December 4, 2012—An Egyptian court late last month closed the case of trade union leader Kamal Abbas, who was sentenced in absentia earlier this year to six months imprisonment on charges he “insulted a state executive.”
Moroccan Trade Union Leader Released from Jail. November 29, 2012—Excellent news from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF): Mohamed Chamchati,the unjustly detained general secretary of the Moroccan merchant seafarers’ union, has been released. Like his colleague, Said Elhairech, who was freed in October, Chamchati was arrested in June on clearly mistaken charges. Yesterday, he and others were released without charge.
Egypt’s State-Controlled Labor Federation to Be Dissolved. August 8, 2011—In a victory for Egypt’s independent labor movement, the state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) will be dissolved after democracy and union activists pressed the government to enforce a 2006 judgment that invalidated the results of 2006 ETUF board elections, reports the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services. Ahmad El-Borai, the interim minister of manpower and migration, explained in a memo to the cabinet that the elections were considered fraudulent and the ruling should be implemented.
Egyptian Worker Rights Threatened under New Anti-Protest Law. July 12, 2011—Egyptian worker rights groups are condemning an April 12 law banning assemblies, protests, and strikes that hinder workplace production. The law, which makes such actions punishable with up to a year’s imprisonment and a fine equivalent to as much as $83,000, has already resulted in the arrest and detainment of workers demonstrating for reinstatement of fired colleagues, permanent hiring of temporary contract workers, payment of wage arrears, and other crucial issues.
Egyptian Government Moves to Outlaw Worker Protests. March 29, 2011—A March 23 decree by the Egyptian cabinet that would criminalize sit-ins, protests, and strikes is an attack on workers, say Egyptian and international worker and human rights groups. The proposed law would impose steep penalties, including imprisonment, for participation in gatherings deemed to interfere in the operations of any private- or public-sector business.
Egyptian Workers Call for Democracy, Social Justice, and Jobs. Since January 25, 2011, the Egyptian people have bravely taken to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to call for an end to decades of authoritarian rule and to demand democracy and social justice. This is a major grassroots movement of historic significance in Egypt and the region, and workers' issues are front and center.
Egyptian Workers Celebrate Birth of a New Independent Union. The Egyptian Health Technicians announce the establishment of their Union, reports the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services. More than 1,200 delegates representing the 12,000 members of the new union attended the founding conference on December 29, 2010. “They put their hands together, raised their heads high, and put their feet on the road to achieve their legalized aspirations,” said a union press release. Read the January 11, 2011, letter of support from the International Trade Union Confederation
Military Trial Ends in Acquittals, Suspended Sentences, and Fines for 8 Egyptian Workers. On August 30, 2010, a military court acquitted three workers at the Helwan Engineering Industries plant of assault and vandalism while imposing fines and suspended sentences on five others. The eight workers had been arrested on August 3 during a protest over a deadly boiler explosion at the factory. On August 4, their case was referred to a military tribunal.
Egyptian Workers Honored with Meany-Kirkland Human Rights Award. On August 3, 2010, the AFL-CIO awarded the 2009 Meany-Kirkland Human Rights Award to the workers of Egypt. The award was received on behalf of Egyptian workers by Mr. Kamal Abbas, the Director of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS) and Mr. Kamal Abu Eita, the President of the Real Estate Tax Authority Union (RETA) – the first independent union in Egypt in 50 years.
Egyptian Workers Clash with Police During Protest. On May 23, 2010, security forces attacked and arrested workers demonstrating in front of the Egyptian Parliament, forcing the workers to end their protest and a two-week-old sit-in. Police also barred journalists from filming the demonstration and interviewing the workers, even confiscating cell phones to prevent any videos or photographs of the attack. Journalists were told to leave the immediate area.
Egyptian Workers To Receive Meany-Kirkland Award. The AFL-CIO Executive Council has awarded the Egyptian union movement the 2009 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award. The award will be formally presented later this year. The latest Solidarity Center report, Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, tells why Egyptian workers in the thousands are holding an unprecedented number of strikes over a wide range of worker rights abuses.
After 16 Days, Egyptian Workers End Sit-In. On February 23, 2010, the workers of the Tanta Linen, Flax and Oil Company ended their 16 day sit-in in front of the Egyptian Cabinet after an agreement with Minister of Manpower and Migration was reached. The workers were demanding the reinstatement of several workers who have been fired, an increase in their meal allowance, and payment of back wages and bonuses that they are owed.
Happy Birthday to Egypt's First Trade Union. More than 2,500 trade unionists, political and human rights activists, and government representatives gathered in a Cairo suburb to celebrate the first anniversary of the 37,000-member Real Estate Tax Authority union (RETA), Egypt’s first independent union. Egypt’s Tax Collectors on Strike. More than 1,000 property tax collectors are staging a sit-in in downtown Cairo, demanding job reforms and a halt to what they called a crackdown on their independent union. Read blog by Hossam el-Hamalawy. Watch a video
Independent Egyptian Union Under Stress. The newly formed Real Estate Tax Authority independent union is being undermined by the government and the official union federation, says RETA Chairman Kamal Abu Eita.
Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt (2010): English / Arabic
"Egyptian Labor Organizes," October 18, 2011. Marketplace World interview with Egyptian labor activists including EFIU President Kamal Abu Eita and Solidarity Center Program Officer Marian Fadel. 26:45 minutes