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Egypt: Faces from the front line

29 October 2012
Leading activists in the new free Egyptian trade unions discuss their strategies and how PSI can continue to support them.

The headquarters of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) is on the 5th floor of a residential apartment block in a Cairo sidestreet, just 20 minutes  walk from Tahrir Square, the centre of the Egyptian uprising.  The office is just an ordinary flat, with three rooms, kitchen and bathroom.  Only a poster stuck on the front door shows that it is in fact the headquarters of a new trade union movement in a country of 80 million people.

On the evening of Sunday 9 September 2012, there  were meetings in every room. One of those meetings  involved five unions affiliated to PSI, discussing their strategies, and how PSI could support them. In the room next door, EFITU leaders were planning a media conference around their demands for a new labour law to recognise the rights of workers to join free trade unions.  

EFITU was formed in March 2011, born as part of the uprising. It provided a way of linking the unofficial unions, and a voice for workers in the uprising itself. These unions have grown out of years of unofficial union organisation and strikes under the old dictatorship – a wave of strikes and disputes that is still continuing today.  The strikers have been over pay and conditions and employers refusing to honour agreements, but also demands for better public healthcare, general strikes in support of the democratic demands of the uprising - and strikes against privatisation and the corruption involved in it. This too was a core factor in the uprisings  themselves, one result of which was the conviction of Mubarak’s sons for corrupt profiteering from privatisations.

The PSI affiliates have been at the forefront of this movement. RETA was formed by local government property tax collectors to defend pay and conditions, and asked the government to recognise it in 2009 – the first union to defy the law against organisations outside the official government-sponsored unions. The Health Technicians union was also formed in 2010, and, together with RETA and the teachers’ union, were the original founders of EFITU. The workers of Petrotrade, the major energy company in Egypt, have organised a series of strikes over the last few years. SELAS, the  general  tax workers union, has also taken action, and experienced a backlash from the Ministry of Finance, which has suspended 51 union members without pay.   The new water workers union is also expected to affiliate to PSI, but its first priority is to complete organising the water workers in every city and region of Egypt, to ensure that there is a single nationwide union.

At the meeting in Cairo, before discussing the issues in Egypt, the affiliates first wanted to learn how unions in other countries had rebuilt their organisations after the end of dictatorships, and their relations with social movements and political parties. We discussed how the Brazilians confederation, CUT, and the South African confederation COSATU, had built new trade union movements based on organisation that was originally illegal under the undemocratic regimes; how South Koreans had defied labour laws to create a new movement;  how Indonesian unions had rebuilt themselves after the overthrow of the Suharto dictatorship; and how in former communist states of eastern Europe some trade unionists had created new unions, while others had reformed the old official unions. We could have also discussed the experiences in Spain and Portugal, where trade unionism was rebuilt after the end of the dictatorships in the 1970s. PSI and its affiliates have a wealth of experience to offer on this strategic issue.   

Download the full report from David Hall, Director of PSIRU below.
PSIRU (www.psiru.org) is the research unit at the University of Greenwich in London, UK, which was created by, and is core funded by PSI. Hall was in Egypt to speak at a conference organised by the social movements to expose the problems with public-private partnership (PPPs).

See also:
•    A good account of the rise of EFITU and the issues facing trade unionists in Egypt is: “The Rise of Egypt’s Workers” by Joel Beinin (Carnegie Paper, June 2012)
•    MENA solidarity campaign 07 Sept 2012: Egypt: New campaign for trade union freedoms launched
•    IPS 20 July 2012 Egypt’s New Unions Face Uncertain Future

Also see