On the very first day of my internship at ILRF, I attended this discussion panel on labor movements in Egypt. Being Chinese, I didn’t know much of what was going on in Egypt so this event provided an opportunity for me to learn from the experts. It was co-organized by the Solidarity Center and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Dr. Joel Beinin as the speaker discussed the main findings of the Solidarity Center report The Struggle for Workers for Workers Rights in Egypt (The report is available online). He was joined by Kamal Abbas, who is an Egyptian labor rights activist, and Sarah Leah Whitson, the director Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa divisions.
This event was a useful way to learn about some key issues that are related to Egypt but that also connect to some other broader issues that all workers face.
Dr. Joel Beinin analyzed the current situation of labor rights movements in Egypt, and highlighted its roots and the implication on Egyptian society and future labor rights activities. Since 2004, Egypt has witnessed a dramatic increase in labor protests, close to 1600 incidences.
It resulted from the combined effects of authoritarian control and the liberalization policy. Despite its republic appearance, Egypt is an authoritarian state. The government exerts very restrictive control over civil society. Even though Egypt ratified core ILO conventions decades ago as listed in the following table, words have not been transformed into action. For instance, the government continues to suppress workers’ rights such as freedom of association and the right to organize and collective bargain. All NGOs are required to register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity. Permission from the Ministry of the Interior is required for any public meetings, and rarely given. Security forces routinely suppressed demonstrations and strikes. Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) is the only legal national trade union in Egypt. But it is very closely linked to the government, and can be seen as the arm of the state, rather than an independent trade union that speaks for workers. According to Egyptian law, all local trade unions must be recognized and affiliated with ETUF.Ratification of core ILO Conventions by Egypt
Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining
- C87 Ratified on 11/06/1957
- C98 Ratified on 07/03/1954
Abolition of Child Labor
- C138 Ratified on 01/23/1996
- C182 Ratified on 05/06/2002
Elimination of Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation
- C100 Ratified on 07/26/1960
- C111 Ratified on 05/10/1960
Last year was truly a turning point when the Egypt’s first independent union-- Real Estate Tax Authority Union (RETA) --was established. This success represents the shifting concern of workers from merely economic terms to political realms. It also sent a positive signal to the society that pouring out into the street and demanding labor rights is an effective way.
The panel reminds me of the experience in Asia. Countries like China, Vietnam, India and Thailand, almost every country that went from a socialist economy to a liberal market economy had similar experiences. Workers are always the ones that suffered most from the pain of economic liberalization. Please allow me ask a stupid question: is liberalization the only way to prosperity? Is it possible to liberalize and develop economy on the one hand, and avoid the pains workers suffered on the other hand?