From the TUC

Egypt’s new labour movement comes of age

30 Jan 2012, By

On the desert-battered outskirts of Cairo, in a kitsch marble convention centre, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) has just announced to Egypt and the world that it has come of age. EFITU was born in the inspiration and chaos of Tahrir square, exactly 12 months to the day. Since then they have been organising, organising and organising. Today was a chance to show the results and I was blown away.

The federation claims to have organised a phenomenal 2 million workers into 200 unions in barely a year. Of course, many of the new independent unions have their roots in the underground workers’ struggles throughout the past decade. And without clear ways to keep membership records, the total figure may be in doubt, but as an accurate figure emerges it will still be the single most impressive organising effort I’ve ever come across (And this is just one of the two new independent federations: the Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress (EDLC) claims to have signed up 214 unions with a seven figure combined membership also).

Legitimacy means everything to this nascent movement. So long denied a voice in the workplace and a voice in society, they are determined to be democratic and everywhere. “We bid farewell to land-lord run unions” of Mubarak, said Kamal Abou Aita, the acting President of EFITU.

And they did so in meticulous-style: each of the 264 delegates would vote, one-by-one, walking up onto the congress stage, showing their ID, filing out their ballot and putting it in a large glass box for the entire hall to see. “How powerful is that?” I thought after the first few votes. “How long will this take?” I thought after three hours and only 140 delegates in. More hours passed and I realised that these guys have pyramid-building patience and that I’d nodded off and drooled a bit.

But by then the party had set in. Us international guests filed some dead air time by firing off our best platitudes from the podium. I took the liberty to pass on your solidarity, and then joined in a few chants that I didn’t understand. By the time I left the congress in the wee hours the votes for the finance committee were only just rolling in.

What about the role of women in this new Egyptian union movement I hear you ask? Sure they were at the forefront of the revolution but early photos I saw of this new union movement showed a room full of men, straining the definition of middle-aged.

But today’s congress showed progress and promise. “It fills us with pride that the youth represent the vast majority of our union organisation, and that women play a pivotal role in our union,” said Abou Aita. And I could see that he wasn’t wrong.  Further, it was these delegates that moved an amendment to EFITU’s constitution to put in place a 25 per cent quota for women. No mean feat in this part of the world.

But the journey for women’s empowerment in Egypt will be a long one. Take this sobering passage from the ILO’s latest global employment trends report on Egypt, Libya and Tunisa (page 75):

The unemployment rate for young people in the region was 27.1 per cent in 2011, the rate for women stood at 19.0 per cent and young women faced an unemployment rate of 41.0 per cent.

Even where they have a job, “female workers and those in the private sector work in slave-like conditions”, concluded Kamal Abbass, the acting leader of the EDLC, after describing the extreme overtime, poverty wages and high levels of harassment they face. With British business sourcing from these export zones of “slave-like conditions”, we need to play our role.

The new unions are still very much workplace based, yet to make connections with those in the same sector, or region, but the links are emerging.  But workshop sessions throughout the week are pulling together key workers in the same sector, their respective global sectoral union federations helping with the speed-merger-dating.

And bizarrely, it got exciting: “We have formed 23 committees! And I’m on the fishing committee!”, yelled out one speaker to thunderous applause and more infectious chants that I didn’t understand. I wished I was on the fishing committee.

These workers are from workplaces across Egypt. I spoke with welders, justice ministry workers, bus drivers, teachers, farmers, postal workers, and nurses. Abou Aita also spoke proudly of the vulnerable – “peasants, casual workers, informal economy workers and street vendors” – swelling their ranks.

What impressed me greatly is that these folks aren’t waiting for some legislative silver bullet to deliver a union movement to them. They are going out there and making it under laws that haven’t changed since Hosni Mubarak owned the country.

And it’s tough. Most of them don’t have offices, and are barred from opening bank accounts. All of them face workplaces where the official stooge unions of the old regime are still collecting compulsory dues against the wishes of the workforce. To join a real union in Egypt you have to pay double.

Further, the new government may be dominated by Islamic parties that swept the recent elections, and a new law on trade union freedoms is yet to be enacted. But these won’t stop this chanting hall of workers whose time has come. They’ve already sunk their roots too deep.

9 Responses to Egypt’s new labour movement comes of age

  1. mostafa mohamed
    Feb 4th 2012, 6:16 pm

    Hope taht you undrestand teh real situation the total figues ares just hundresds not millions

  2. Ben Moxham

    Ben Moxham
    Feb 5th 2012, 10:45 am

    Mostafa, your email address “[email protected]…” suggests you’re from ETUF – the old state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation, so I take your comment with the disrespect it deserves. Every Egyptian worker I’ve spoken with says that your organisation is an illegitimate puppet of the state with a long history of suppressing industrial action, living off the fat of compulsory membership dues, and should be dissolved. The TUC and the international trade union movement absolutely agree.

    Kamal Abbas of the Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services is even more damning: “Enough … all these years … and crimes enough! … Enough you killers! … You participated in the passage of the privatization deals, and facilitated and justified the blatant attacks on the rights of workers … You defended with impunity Mubarak’s regime with its corruption, repression and tyranny, and then you plotted against the killing of the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square!” from

  3. mostafa rostom
    Feb 6th 2012, 4:52 pm

    tell me role of TUC and GFTU in privatization that have been imposed on workeers around the whole world zwe respect yyour opinion but in any place you find good and bad you know Wedad el demerdach she is from general trdae union of textile in egypt if you likee to know us come to visit us without spreading conpiracies among labour movent in Egypt read baker book abour solidarity center abd etccccccccccccc
    thanks to cacept my answer

  4. Ben Moxham

    Ben Moxham
    Feb 7th 2012, 9:41 am

    Thanks Mostafa – of course there must be positive elements in the old state-controlled trade union body, and perhaps I was too harsh. They now have a great opportunity to become genuine trade unions that represent their members. The international trade union movement can work with them to do that, but this will require leaving ETUF sooner rather than later.

    And for the record, our member unions have been very outspoken when privatisation threatened the interests of their members. ETUF has been heavily criticised for not doing so – and yes, the solidarity center-supported book you refer to supports that conclusion.

    For more evidence of the rapid growth of independent unions, see this inspiring story of 50,000 workers in the electricity and energy sector who have just held their first Congress:

  5. mostafa rostom
    Feb 7th 2012, 10:11 am

    Daer Brother
    I am about to laugh thanks any way if you like to knaow us come to us About ICEM It is ok for us they lost us and we lsot them we don t mind a lot If you men dan Offallen aand Heba shazli we don t care where have been they within the corrution thaey paly in Egypt I have a lot of Information Believe me I am communist but transparent My email [email protected]

  6. mostafa rostom
    Feb 7th 2012, 10:17 am

    For me I have been working to help ICEM within Victor thorpe time But do u think transparency is needed not only through us and i can send you on yoiur personel email some have been written about solidarity center and donor organbziation

  7. mostafa rostom
    Feb 11th 2012, 4:27 pm

    Call for solidarity with dockers in Egypt
    10 February 2012
    The ITF is urging affiliates to show solidarity with workers in the port of Sokhna in Egypt, who started a sit-in protest this week over their employer’s unwillingness to implement an agreement.
    The dockers, represented by the Independent Union of Sokhna Port Workers, began their three-day sit-in protest on 9 February; it will be followed by indefinite strike action. The move follows the failure of talks between DP World, which operates the port, the labour ministry and the union over the implementation of a settlement reached in October 2011. The agreement dealt with workers’ concerns regarding pay and promotion processes, compensation for hazardous work and the payment of profit-related bonuses; however, its terms have never been put into practice.
    Earlier this week, the ITF called on both Egypt’s prime minister Kamal al-Ganzouri and the chief executive officer of DP World in Sokhna port Captain Rustom Dastoor to help bring about a settlement.
    Bilal Malkawi, ITF Arab World office, commented: “The situation in the port has now escalated – the union had no option but to take industrial action after discussions ended without any positive results. The ITF is standing firmly behind the union and is calling on affiliates to do the same.”
    Unions are being urged to send a message of solidarity to the union and a protest letter to the company.

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