CAIRO: Fourteen months after they forced the government into responding to their demands for better pay, real estate tax collectors have formed Egypt’s first independent trade union since 1957.
“I feel happy and honored to be part of such an initiative, Tarek Mostafa, one of the founders of the Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Employees (URETAE), and now its secretary general, told Daily News Egypt.
“I feel that I am serving my country. The existence of free unions improves the country’s image internationally and I am proud to be part of that, Mostafa continued.
On Tuesday, tax collectors gathered outside Cairo’s Ministry of Manpower as URETAE leaders handed paperwork concerning the establishment of the new union to Minister of Manpower Aisha Abdel Hady.
Outside, tax collectors chanted slogans denouncing the state-controlled Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions (EFTU), as they had during their historic 11-day sit-in in December 2007.
The General Union of Bank, Insurance and Finance Employees (part of the EFTU) was opposed to the strike-action carried out by tax collectors in 2007. Workers in various sectors say that EFTU’s undemocratic structure and pro-government appointment policies result in their having to battle with their employers, the government and their own union during industrial disputes.
Tax collectors responded to the General Union’s intransigence by forming the higher committee for the property tax collectors’ strike, led by the charismatic Kamal Abu Eita, which mobilized thousands of tax collectors.
Rather than disbanding when the government conceded to their demands (awarding them pay rises of over 325 percent) tax collectors began collecting signatures in support of the formation of a free union. Abu Eita is now URETAE’s president, and over 30,000 of the real estate tax authority’s 50,000 employees have joined the union.
Tax collectors announced URETAE’s formation in December 2008.
Mostafa was quick to point out that the Ministry of Manpower does not have the right or power to stop URETAE’s formation.
“There is no such thing as approving or disapproving when it comes to the formation of independent unions. This is a common misconception. The ministry is only entitled to approve or disapprove the terms outlined in their proposal, but cannot challenge the idea as whole, Mostafa said.
URETAE’s lawyer Haitham Mohamadein explained that under Law 35 on trade unions issued in 1976 the government has 30 days to challenge the establishment of the union by lodging a court case.
After meeting Abdel Hady on Tuesday, however, Mohamedain’s feeling is that the Ministry of Manpower will not mount a challenge.
Mohamadein added that technically, EFTU could also oppose URETAE’s formation.
EFTU and its controversial president Hussein El-Megawar have made concerted attempts to discredit URETAE and persuade the Ministry of Manpower not to deal with it. URETAE’s victory therefore represents a significant loss of face for Megawar.
Attempts to reach Megawar for comment failed.
“EFTU could challenge URETAE’s formation but to do so would be a huge public relations blunder and would make EFTU look really bad; URETAE has large numbers of members and has established itself, Mohamadein explained. Such is their confidence; URETAE’s leaders are now turning to the business of finding a headquarters and issuing membership cards.
The handing over URETAE’s papers on Tuesday was a historic and significant step in a country where blocs of independent, non-government power are tightly controlled.
It marks a victory for Egypt’s labor movement, revived after the success of the December 2006 strike in the state-owned Ghazl El-Mahalla spinning factory, which is credited with setting in motion the hundreds of protests and strikes Egypt has witnessed since then.
Writing in the December 2008 edition of Britain’s Socialist Review, journalist and activist Hossam El-Hamalawy suggested that the URETAE’s establishment would have a “ripple effect.
“Cracks are expected in the state-backed General Federation’s body if the property tax collectors succeed in launching their free union. This should have a ripple effect in the Egyptian political arena. The establishment of independent union federations has been in the heart of the political transformation process in former dictatorships like Poland, South Korea, South Africa and others.
Mostafa is optimistic that URETAE’s example will inspire other workers.
“This initiative will pave the way for future initiatives in the same direction because while Egypt has liberalized the economy it has yet to free workers. -Additional reporting by Heba El-Sherif.