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January 2012, Week 5

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

http://strongerunions.org/2012/01/30/egypt%E2%80%99s-new-labour-movement-comes-of-age/?utm_source=dlvr.itutm_medium=twitter

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.

____________________________________________

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