The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) expresses its grave concern over a recently proposed ban on strikes and confirms its support for the right of labor groups to organize independently. The new Minister of Manpower, Nahed al-Ashry, proposed the ban on Sunday, March 9, 2014. According to a recent feature in Mada Masr, the ban would prohibit work stoppages for the next year.
Al-Ashry is only the most recent figure to take a strong stance against labor organization. A similar ban was enacted in March 2011, and was justified as a necessary part of the emergency law, to the dismay of human rights organizations. Both the interim military government in place after Mubarak’s ouster and the Morsi government summarily rejected a proposed Trade Union Freedoms Law. The marginalization of labor issues was one of the main factors that prompted a coordinated effort among independent labor unions to oppose Morsi’s presidency during the signature-collection under the Tamarod campaign.
These actions, perpetrated by several governments, indicate an enduring effort to impede the work of independent labor unions and to curtail labor rights in Egypt. While the famous April 6 movement, so instrumental in organizing the 2011 uprisings, took its name from 2008 labor demonstrations on this date, labor strikes were quickly demonized in the aftermath of Mubarak’s downfall. Leaders from both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Muslim Brotherhood spoke out strongly against the demonstrations, termed to have hampered the “wheels of production.” This language is echoed in Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s recent address in which he implored workers to refrain from strikes in the interest of “construction and development.”
As for this most recent action, the proposed ban is unconstitutional. Article 15 of Egypt’s recently adopted constitution declares that peaceful strikes are a right and Article 13 commits the state to protect workers’ rights and ensure means for collective negotiation. Though both articles stipulate that these rights are regulated by law, the right to strike is implicit in its regulation.
Furthermore, Article 93 of the constitution commits international convention as law. ((While others have cited Article 93 as an article which this law may violate, a previous analysis explained that ratified international treaties have the same domestic force under Article 93 as a legislatively-enacted statute. As such, the treaty’s domestic force can be therefore implicitly repealed by a later statute. Nonetheless, the common Egyptian constitutional clause, “as regulated by law” appears in Article 15. The word “regulate,” of course, presupposes the existence of that which is to be regulated. Thus, regulation will only have meaning in the context of the preceding word’s continued existence. Here, “peaceful strike” cannot be regulated if “peaceful strike” no longer exists. Moreover, the word “regulate” means to adjust or modify, not to eliminate. Had elimination been in the mind of the constitution, the word “abrogate” would have been used.))
The proposed ban is also in direct violation of international agreements, including International Labor Organization Convention 87 (ratified by Egypt in 1957) and Article 8 of the United Nations International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees the right to strike (ratified by Egypt in 1982).
Independent bodies including the Center for Trade Union and Worker’s Services, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, and the Workers’ Coordination Committee have all denounced the proposed ban.
The systematic curtailment of labor rights, under the guise of being antithetical to economic stability, is of special concern to TIMEP. The recognition of workers’ demands, greater protection of workers’ rights, and a real and earnest dialogue will be required before Egypt can realize sustainable and just economic development. Egyptian government officials must respect the labor rights protections provided under Egypt’s new constitution as well as its longstanding international obligations. They must also ensure that workers’ demands, which were an integral part of the calls for social justice made in early 2011, do not get sidelined in efforts to improve Egypt’s economy.
UPDATE (March 26, 2014): TIMEP is concerned over the arrests of five union organizers in Alexandria. The postal authority workers were arrested in their homes at 1 a.m. on Tuesday, March 25.
The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of democratic transitions in the Middle East through analysis, advocacy, and action.