Independent new trade unions in Egypt clash with Mubarak old guard

The long-established Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) claims the upstart Egyptian Federation for Independent Unions (EFIU) is 'a Zionist conspiracy", while the EFIU says its rival is 'run by a group of old men who serve whatever political power is convenient.'

An Egyptian worker holds a red flag of the Egyptian workers union and a banner that reads in Arabic, "workers of Egypt, unite,". Khalil Hamra / AP Photo
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CAIRO // The rise of independent unions across Egypt is expected to become a driving force for a nation in disarray after the revolution.

The increasing strength of the unions, representing more than five million people from textile workers to government employees, comes as the economy begins to dominate the debate over the country's future. Unemployment in Egypt is at about 12 per cent, food prices are on the rise, and the economy will probably run a deficit because of the drop in tourism and business following the revolt that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

The battle for union influence is being waged by two groups: the long-established Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and the upstart Egyptian Federation for Independent Unions (EFIU).

Both organisations have pushed their dispute into the spotlight in recent weeks, each firing incendiary remarks and filing lawsuits to shut down the other.

Ibrahim el Azhary, the general secretary of ETUF, calls the independent union movement "the counter-revolution among the workers" and "a Zionist conspiracy".

Kamel Abbas, one of the founders of EFIU, said ETUF is run by "a group of old men who serve whatever political power is convenient" and are "enemies of workers' rights in Egypt".

ETUF said it will lobby a new parliament for independence from the government, but that it wants to retain control of negotiations with the government and industries on issues such as wages and benefits. EFIU, on the other hand, argues for the complete independence of unions to negotiate on their own or in groups, and the ability to play a larger political role in the country.

Under Mr Mubarak, the law required all unions to be a part of ETUF and it has been widely accepted that the organisation was a part of the government's apparatus to control dissent and manage the economy.

Human rights groups and political observers have alleged that the federation's top officials also co-operated with Mr Mubarak to truck in workers to the polls to sway elections. Hussain Megawer, the former head of ETUF, is in police custody on charges of hiring thugs to attack protesters in Tahrir Square.

Mr Abbas, who is also the founder of the Centre for Trade Union Worker Services in the steel-worker neighbourhood of Helwan in Cairo, said: "They co-operated with the regime; they tried to stop strikes; they made catastrophic decisions for workers in Egypt. The government-controlled federation supported the government and all of its politics, despite the fact that the policies were against the best interest of the workers."

Mr Abbas envisions a future with independent trade unions, in which workers will not only be able to directly negotiate with employers, but will also take stronger stands against political candidates and policies that hurt the prospects for workers.

"Under the old regime, everything we did was illegal," he said from an office with new furniture and bright, ultra-modern paintings of Egyptian steel factories on the wall.

"Now, we are changing. Look at other countries with powerful unions, like the United States and in Europe. They play an important role in politics. This could be in our future."

Mr el Azhary, however, whose office is covered with his Baroque paintings of flowers, believes the unions of Egypt should stay out of politics altogether. A former member of Mr Mubarak's National Democratic Party, he said ETUF should focus on labour relations.

"I think it is dangerous when politics and unions mix together," he said.

The caretaker government, led by the Supreme Council of the Military Forces, has so far come out strongly in favour of the independent unions. Ahmed el Borai, the minister of manpower and immigration, declared the freedom of associations as one of his first acts. The move led the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to immediately remove Egypt's from its blacklist of countries that prevent freedom of association for its workers.

"What has happened after the revolution is very positive," said Yousef Qaryouti, the head of the ILO's Egypt office.

"Before if you wanted to do anything, you had to go through ETUF and get a certificate. We are strongly in favour of freedom of association."

Samir Radwan, the minister of finance, is a former official in the ILO and supporter of independent unions. He established the country's first minimum wage at 700 Egyptian pounds (Dh429) a month on June 1 in a move that was a "step in the right direction", Mr Qaryouti said.

Egyptian unions, known as "syndicates", may have been stifled by the government under Mr Mubarak, but they were in many ways the progenitors of the revolution that swept the country starting January 25.

More than two million workers have participated in 3,500 strikes, sit-ins and other protests since 1998, with increasingly large actions in the textile industry taking place in recent years, according to Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University who has studied Egyptian unions.

One of the early groups to add its might to the demonstrations in Tahrir was the April 6 Youth Movement, which took its name from a planned general strike in 2008 that was repressed by the government.

But a new trend is now rushing through the country.

Where there were only a handful of new trade unions formed before the revolution, they are now sprouting up by the dozen each month.

Mr el Azhary said ETUF had already registered a new union for "dwarfs", by which he meant people short enough to be considered eligible for a quota of jobs allocated at companies for disabled people, and police secretaries.

The plan was to also create a union for day-labourers to organise millions of people who work on short-term contracts.

New independent unions are even more prevalent, ranging from a group of workers at a single company to industry-wide unions seeking to replace the official unions of ETUF.

Bassem Halaka, the chairman of the General Tourism Syndicate, which formed in May, said he already has 6,000 members in his group and elections were beginning across the country to nominate officials.

"Egypt is like a triangle between the workers, the businesses and the government," he said. "For too long, there was no angle on this triangle, no real unions. Now, we are here and we are ready to become more powerful."