Egypt’s New Labor Movement Comes of Age
Stronger Unions, via LabourStart
January 30th, 2012
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
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-
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.
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