Egypt’s new labor movement comes of age

On the desert-battered outskirts of Cairo, in a kitsch marble convention centre, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) has just announced to Egypt and the world that it has come of age. EFITU was born in the inspiration and chaos of Tahrir square, exactly 12 months to the day. Since then they have been organising, organising and organising. Today was a chance to show the results and I was blown away.

The federation claims to have organised a phenomenal 2 million workers into 200 unions in barely a year. Of course, many of the new independent unions have their roots in the underground workers’ struggles throughout the past decade. And without clear ways to keep membership records, the total figure may be in doubt, but as an accurate figure emerges it will still be the single most impressive organising effort I’ve ever come across (And this is just one of the two new independent federations: the Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress (EDLC) claims to have signed up 214 unions with a seven figure combined membership also).

Legitimacy means everything to this nascent movement. So long denied a voice in the workplace and a voice in society, they are determined to be democratic and everywhere. “We bid farewell to land-lord run unions” of Mubarak, said Kamal Abou Aita, the acting President of EFITU.

And they did so in meticulous-style: each of the 264 delegates would vote, one-by-one, walking up onto the congress stage, showing their ID, filing out their ballot and putting it in a large glass box for the entire hall to see. “How powerful is that?” I thought after the first few votes. “How long will this take?” I thought after three hours and only 140 delegates in. More hours passed and I realised that these guys have pyramid-building patience and that I’d nodded off and drooled a bit.

But by then the party had set in. Us international guests filed some dead air time by firing off our best platitudes from the podium. I took the liberty to pass on your solidarity, and then joined in a few chants that I didn’t understand. By the time I left the congress in the wee hours the votes for the finance committee were only just rolling in.

What about the role of women in this new Egyptian union movement I hear you ask? Sure they were at the forefront of the revolution but early photos I saw of this new union movement showed a room full of men, straining the definition of middle-aged.

But today’s congress showed progress and promise. “It fills us with pride that the youth represent the vast majority of our union organisation, and that women play a pivotal role in our union,” said Abou Aita. And I could see that he wasn’t wrong.  Further, it was these delegates that moved an amendment to EFITU’s constitution to put in place a 25 per cent quota for women. No mean feat in this part of the world.

But the journey for women’s empowerment in Egypt will be a long one. Take this sobering passage from the ILO’s latest global employment trends report on Egypt, Libya and Tunisa (page 75):

The unemployment rate for young people in the region was 27.1 per cent in 2011, the rate for women stood at 19.0 per cent and young women faced an unemployment rate of 41.0 per cent.

Even where they have a job, “female workers and those in the private sector work in slave-like conditions”, concluded Kamal Abbass, the acting leader of the EDLC, after describing the extreme overtime, poverty wages and high levels of harassment they face. With British business sourcing from these export zones of “slave-like conditions”, we need to play our role.

The new unions are still very much workplace based, yet to make connections with those in the same sector, or region, but the links are emerging.  But workshop sessions throughout the week are pulling together key workers in the same sector, their respective global sectoral union federations helping with the speed-merger-dating.

And bizarrely, it got exciting: “We have formed 23 committees! And I’m on the fishing committee!”, yelled out one speaker to thunderous applause and more infectious chants that I didn’t understand. I wished I was on the fishing committee.

These workers are from workplaces across Egypt. I spoke with welders, justice ministry workers, bus drivers, teachers, farmers, postal workers, and nurses. Abou Aita also spoke proudly of the vulnerable – “peasants, casual workers, informal economy workers and street vendors” – swelling their ranks.

What impressed me greatly is that these folks aren’t waiting for some legislative silver bullet to deliver a union movement to them. They are going out there and making it under laws that haven’t changed since Hosni Mubarak owned the country.

And it’s tough. Most of them don’t have offices, and are barred from opening bank accounts. All of them face workplaces where the official stooge unions of the old regime are still collecting compulsory dues against the wishes of the workforce. To join a real union in Egypt you have to pay double.

Further, the new government may be dominated by Islamic parties that swept the recent elections, and a new law on trade union freedoms is yet to be enacted. But these won’t stop this chanting hall of workers whose time has come. They’ve already sunk their roots too deep.

Reposted from Stronger Unions, a news and comment blog about the British trade union movement, managed by the UK Trades Union Council . Ben Moxham is a policy officer with the TUC’s European Union and International Relations Department. Photo: Egyptian telecommunications workers block off Ramses Street in Cairo during last year’s uprising, Feb. 9, 2011. Jano Charbel // CC 2.0