Doctors' fight to legalize strike action

Sarah Carr
6 Min Read

CAIRO: The first hearing of a case concerning the right of doctors to strike was heard Tuesday by the State Council.

The case, brought by members of lobby group Doctors Without Rights, was launched after Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said during a radio interview at the beginning of March that “public sector employees – in particular doctors – are prohibited from striking.

His comments were seen as a veiled attack on the Doctors’ Syndicate whose members in February voted for a two-hour symbolic strike in Ministry of Health hospitals on March 15 of this year.

The case brought by the lobby group Tuesday centered on the unconstitutionality of the Employment Law and of a decree issued in 2003 by the prime minister in the implementation of article 194 of the Employment Law Article 194 prohibits strikes in “strategic or vital installations.which undermine national security or basic services offered to the public.

The prime minister’s 2003 decree interprets “strategic or vital installations as including hospitals and health centers.

After initially endorsing strike action, Doctors’ Syndicate head Hamdy El-Sayyed announced that the March 15 strike would be postponed “in order to study the extent of its legality after Nazif made his comments.

Doctors Without Rights say that in overturning the decision to strike without holding a vote by the syndicate’s general assembly, El-Sayyed acted illegally.

Members of Doctors Without Rights staged a one-week sit-in on the steps of the Syndicate on March 15, which ended with a general assembly meeting on March 21.

During the heated meeting it was decided that protests would be held in Ministry of Health hospitals on April 23.

Doctors working within Ministry of Health hospitals complain of extremely poor pay and conditions and limited opportunities for the further study vital to their career advancement.

They are calling for a LE 1,000 minimum wage.

A statement handed out Tuesday by Doctors Without Rights members enumerated the reasons why they are seeking to establish the legality of strike action.

A statement handed out Tuesday by Doctors Without Rights members enumerated the reasons why they are seeking to establish the legality of strike action. “New graduate doctors are paid LE 220 [a month]. After the 30 percent raise [for public sector workers announced at the beginning of May] this will increase to LE 250.

“We have had enough of making demands which are ignored or at best responded to with promises of insignificant increases. Doctors regard strike action as their last weapon: it is extremely trying when doctors’ demands, their general assemblies and their protests are ignored the statement reads.

In the legal memorandum presented to the court, lawyers from the Hisham Mubarak Law Center point out that the definition of a strategic or vital installation as one which “undermines national security or basic services offered to the public is broad and vague.

They also point out that the Egyptian text should be interpreted according to International Labor Organization guidelines, which provide that the essential criterion is whether people’s lives would be endangered by a strike.

The memorandum states that there are various degrees of strikes – such as go-slow action and time-limited strikes – and that the Egyptian legislator should have been aware of the fact that, by adopting one of these alternatives to full strike action, workers in vital installations can safely exercise their right to strike without undermining services provided.

The memorandum places this in the general context of the 2003 Employment Law which, it says, is heavily weighted in favor of employers, at the expense of employees.

The law imposes a group of stringent conditions which must be met before workers can strike legally. The memorandum suggests that meeting these conditions is “fantasy.

During the court session lawyer Khaled Ali referred the court to a 1991 court decision which he said establishes the right of those employed in the public sector to strike.

The Tanta court found in favor of workers from a carpet factory who went on strike, and referred to the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights which entered into force in Egypt when the government ratified it in 1982.

The Tanta court stated in its judgement that the covenant enshrines public sector employees’ right to strike and, significantly, referred to the right to strike as one of Egypt’s “crucial obligations.and one of the most important expressions of democracy.

The case continues on June 17.

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Sarah Carr is a British-Egyptian journalist in Cairo. She blogs at
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