Labor provisions in Egypt's new Constitution are worrying workers and unionists alike, who fear that a lot of room has been left to restrict labor rights.
Drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly, the new Constitution maintains the Nasser-era workers’ quotas in company administrations and reserves 50 percent of seats in parliament for representatives of workers and farmers.
It also maintains many of the labor provisions in the 1971 Constitution, which workers deem to be outdated — even detrimental — such as an article allowing forced labor.
Even some of the novel articles may end up negatively effecting Egypt’s workforce, namely stipulations seen as normalizing child labor, others legitimizing the military trials of civilians that may be used against striking workers, as well as new restrictions that may serve to outlaw numerous professional associations, particularly independent unions and syndicates.
The vague terminology of the new charter leaves room for interventionist legislation. For example, while Article 63 mentions “the right to peaceful strike”— not mentioned in Egypt’s older constitutions — the legislation that is being issued to regulate this article suggest that the right to strike will be curtailed.
Municipal laws regulating workers' rights indicate that Egypt's new ruling regime aims to keep both workers' and union movements on a short leash. These including Presidential Decree 97/2012 amending Trade Union Law 35/1976, Law 105/2012 regulating street vendors, and the Shura Council’s draft law on protests and strikes.
Union plurality and democracy
Since the 25 January uprising, more than 1,000 independent unions were established nationwide, some in non-unionized workforces, others in parallel to existing unions affiliated to the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).
In parallel to the official syndicates, two independent teachers’ unions were established while at least three press syndicates were created. However, the status of these independent entities is being brought into question in light of Egypt’s new Constitution.
Articles 51 to 53 stipulate union freedoms but place limitations on these freedoms. The restrictive Article 53 contradicts the provisions of Article 51, which stipulates “the right to establish associations and civil institutions, subject to notification only. Such institutions shall operate freely, and be deemed legal persons.”
Former Minister of Manpower, Ahmad Hassan al-Borei, declared that these constitutional articles "fail to protect union plurality and democracy." In turn, they stand in "violation of International Labor Organization’s conventions 87 and 98," concerning freedom of association, the right to organize, and collective bargaining, which Egypt ratified since the 1950s but has largely failed to uphold.
A newly added provision, Article 53 limits the plurality of professional associations by allowing only one professional syndicate per profession. It also says “authorities may not disband the boards of professional syndicates except with a court order, and may not place them under sequestration.”
As a founding member of the Independent Teachers' Syndicate — Egypt's second independent professional association, established in 2010 — Abdel Hafiz Tayil expressed his disillusionment with the new Constitution.
Still, he says, "Article 53 will not affect our syndicate or its legal status because we are registered with the Ministry of Manpower as an independent labor union — not a professional syndicate."
The teacher explains that according to Article 51, the Ministry of Manpower cannot dissolve syndicates or unions without a court order. Rather, it’s Article 52 that may be problematic.
Tayil says, “It is Article 52 that is more likely to affect us. While this article stipulates the right to establish unions, it does not mention how to register such unions.”
He clarified that a new trade union law will regulate Article 52, and will open the door to intervention from the state. The manpower ministry may in the future issue decrees that “negatively affect the right to establish unions," he says, “…especially independent unions. The minister may decline to recognize these new associations and refuse to grant them a legal [status].”
Tayil thinks that Egypt’s new ruling powers “will formulate laws according to their whims,” and to combat this, “popular resistance to unjust draft laws is the only way to keep authorities from issuing additionally repressive labor and union legislation."
According to Talal Shokr, an executive board member of the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress (EDLC), "The Brotherhood has historically had a strong presence amongst certain professional syndicates,” particularly doctors, lawyers and engineers.
He adds, “They sought to solidify their hold on professional syndicates through their constitution, while simultaneously moving into the sphere of labor unions, where they had a negligible presence.”
Shokr claims that moves are being made to "Brotherhoodize labor unions through [Brotherhood-affiliated Manpower Minister] Khaled al-Azhary and his appointment of tens of officials in the ETUF."
He thinks the minister will become “increasingly obstructive towards attempts at establishing independent unions, while openly rejecting any attempts to establish alternate professional syndicates."
Late last year, the EDLC and the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions both called on workers to vote against the draft constitution in the referendum, claiming that its provisions strip them of their basic rights. The Constitution passed however, with a 63.8 percent “yes” vote amid a low turnout of around 30 percent.
Minimum and maximum wage
Controversial Article 14 of the new constitution is nearly identical to Article 23 of the 1971 charter, linking wages with production and stipulating that a national minimum wage be established to “guarantee decent living standards for all citizens.”
Mohamed Abdel Galeel, an administrative worker, criticizes the article for tying “wages to production, not to rising prices or inflation. It does not take into consideration workers' use of old and outdated machinery, and the malfunction of these machines."
"How are we to support and feed ourselves with our poor wages in a future characterized by skyrocketing living expenses, the lifting of subsidies, public spending cuts, and tax hikes?" he asks.
Prior to and in the aftermath of the 25 January uprising, a main labor demand has been the establishment of a minimum wage between LE 1,200 and LE 1,500. In October 2011, however, Egypt’s Cabinet set a unified minimum wage of around half that, at LE 700. Even so, this minimum wage is yet to be enforced in the public and private sectors.
In April 2012, the now dissolved People’s Assembly set a maximum wage of LE 50,000, but only within the public sector. This law stipulates that the cap on wages should not exceed 35 times the minimum wage, although workers have been demanding that the maximum wage be no more than 15 times the minimum.
Article 14 goes further to set “maximum wages in civil service positions with exemptions regulated by law.”
Workers and farmers
Although liberal political forces within the Constituent Assembly had sought to cancel longstanding quotas for Egypt's toiling masses, the new constitution retains quotas for workers and farmers on the administrative boards of companies, and in both houses of parliament, via Articles 27 and 229, respectively.
The wording of the constitution, Abbas claims, “makes it seem as if they are safeguarding and upholding labor rights by keeping the 50 percent workers’ and farmers’ quota [in parliament].”
However, he argues, this provision will likely be implemented for only one, five-year term, and then abandoned via parliamentary laws regulating these elections.
According to Shokr, worker and farmer representatives in parliament have typically not represented their constituents, but rather the ruling regimes.
"In a few months we’ll see just how these so-called workers and farmers will endorse and issue a host of anti-labor legislation," he predicts.
From the 1971 Constitution, the 2012 charter also inherits the controversial provision allowing for forced labor, and ironically, provides fewer guarantees against this practice.
Article 13 of the 1971 Constitution stipulated that “no work shall be enforced upon citizens, except by virtue of law and for the performance of a public service and in return for a fair remuneration.” In the new Constitution, Article 63 removes “for fair remuneration” to merely stipulate: “There shall be no forced labor except in accordance with law.”
Though Egypt ratified ILO Conventions Nos. 29 and 105, concerning forced labor and the abolition of forced labor, in the 1950s, it has failed to legally uphold their provisions and is now seen to be enshrining this universally criminalized act.
Meanwhile, the Constitution is even more controversial for enshrining child labor, especially since there was no provision in the 1971 version allowing for this form of labor.
Article 70 of the new Constitution says, “Child labor is prohibited before passing the age of compulsory education, in jobs that are not fit for a child’s age, or that prevent the child from continuing education.”
Shokr says the phrasing on this particular issue “makes it seem like child labor is acceptable and only needs to be regulated.”
“Child labor is a crime which deprives children of their educational opportunities, playtime, and friends; and also denies them their childhoods,” he says, adding that the state should be ashamed and should work to abolish both child and forced labor.
These articles also contravene the ILO’s conventions 182 on the worst forms of child labor, Egypt ratified by Egypt in 2002; and 138 on the minimum age, ratified in 1999 and setting the minimum age for legal child labor at 15.
The contentious practice of trying citizens before military courts is now delineated in the Constitution under Article 198 “for crimes that harm the armed forces.”
Heba Morayef, director of Human Rights Watch in Egypt, says the wording “may allow for the referral of workers to military courts, for example, if they strike at one of the armed forces’ pasta factories.”
The article is all the more worrisome considering estimates that place the armed forces’ control of Egypt’s economy anywhere between 20-40 percent, in varied sectors employing hundreds of thousands nationwide.
Already, a number of citizens have been referred to military tribunals, including freelance journalist Mohamed Sabry, who is facing charges of entering a prohibited military zone and filming an army facility.