CAIRO: The International Labor Organization (ILO) launched a three-year project yesterday aimed at encouraging a culture of employer-employee dialogue in Egypt’s workplace.
An ILO press statement explains that the project – entitled “Promoting the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and Social Dialogue in Egypt – seeks to “promote an appropriate legal environment and a culture of consultation and dialogue in Egypt based on core labor standards.
Funded by the United States’ Department of Labor, ILO representatives explained Monday during the project’s launch that its aims are to enhance the ability of workers and employers to engage in constructive dialogue, strengthen employers’ and workers’ organizations to better represent their members and strengthen the capacity of the Ministry of Manpower and Migration to prevent and settle labor disputes.
ILO’s sub-regional director Loretta Deluca emphasized that social dialogue is “good business and that it is “indispensable in order to allow the whole country to benefit from economic growth.
Minister of Manpower and Migration Aisha Abdel Hady told the meeting that the tripartite social dialogue between employers, employees and the state, which forms the core of the ILO project, is a continuation of the government’s initiatives.
“This project embodies the reformist policies the Egyptian government has been working towards in past years, represented by Labor Law 12/2003 and the adoption of the measures necessary to create a globally competitive economy, Abdel Hady explained.
“All the labor protests witnessed by the Ministry during the last two years were contained through close contact with workers.by trying to find appropriate solutions after asking the two parties to come together at the negotiations table and settle the dispute amicably, she continued.
The year 2007 witnessed a surge of labor protests, which began with a strike at the end of 2006 won by employees of the Ghazl El-Mahalla spinning factory in the Delta town of Mahalla.
Last April clashes erupted between security bodies and residents of Mahalla protesting rising food prices caused by crippling inflation. Security body interference and intimidation was implicated in the collapse of a strike planned in the Ghazl El-Mahalla Factory on April 6.
Three employees of the state-owned factory who had been involved in organizing the strike were arrested and detained for over a month before eventually being released.
“Collective bargaining is the most important tool of the current Labor Law.
It has contributed to creating a culture of negotiation and dialogue, which is an effective means of creating balanced employment relations, Abdel Hady added.
Trade unionists allege that collective bargaining is in fact impossible in Egypt because of the nature of the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions (EFTU), the only recognized union organization in Egypt.
They say that the hierarchical nature of the state-controlled EFTU and the undemocratic nature of its election process prevent it from representing workers’ interests.
Head of the General Union of Spinning and Weaving Said El-Gohary said that collective bargaining “does not exist in Egypt.
“I’ve been to the US and to the UK and saw how they negotiate there, how there is a dialogue. This does not exist in Egypt.
“If the dialogue aimed at in this project had existed from the beginning we would have avoided a lot of problems and workers wouldn’t be so angry.
Let’s speak frankly: We’re not happy, everything isn’t fine, and this dialogue just doesn’t exist, he added.
“I hope this is a new beginning. Existing law must be amended and workers must be given their right to social insurance and working hours laid down in the law, El-Gohary said.
American University in Cairo professor Samir Soleiman emphasized the importance of the role played by trade unions who he said, provide social services to workers, fight for equality at work, and lead collective bargaining talks.
Soleiman used the example of the Egyptian Schoolteachers’ Union to illustrate the importance of trade unions in securing rights.
“The Schoolteachers’ Union played a vital and active role in the 1950s until a police officer – rather than a teacher – was appointed as its head and it was gradually sidelined from then onwards.
“As a result of its loss of influence teachers now seek out individual solutions to their problems rather than acting in concert.
“Egypt now has a education system in crisis which only stays afloat through private lessons – teachers paid LE 400 or LE 500 a month survive by giving private lessons to pupils rather than seeking collective solution, Soleiman explained.
Soleiman also pointed out that the majority of Egypt’s workforce – in the agricultural and private sectors – are not unionized and that therefore, when a problem emerges in the workplace a union is usually not involved.Only 4 million of Egypt’s workforce are members of EFTU.
Daily News Egypt asked Mostafa Said, chief technical advisor of the ILO project, whether the project can succeed given the absence of collective bargaining in Egypt.
“Egypt has ratified ILO convention 98 on collective bargaining and I think there is some sort of collective bargaining in Egypt . but there is a need in the future to revisit the law. Although ILO participated for 11 years in the preparation of Labor Law 12, there were some remarks on the final version by the ILO committee, Said explained.
Daily News Egypt also asked Said how the project would involve workers themselves outside the EFTU framework.
He pointed to the changes in employer-employee relations caused by move to a free market economy as being responsible for current criticisms of EFTU.
“Historically EFTU was organizing in the public sector, and now the public sector is diminishing. Egyptian trade unions have not really been able to cope with the changes and organize in the private sector and the informal economy.
“Of course there is a need for the trade union movement to be trained and equipped in order to be able to organize – this is one of the issues that the project will be working on.
Said also said that the project would attempt to reach non-unionized workers.
“One of the issues I have discussed with EFTU is training within the workplace including in the new cities. This needs to be materialized and of course there will be some difficulties – but it is one of the issues we have discussed, Said explained.