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Trade Unions Are Key to a Successful Transition in Egypt

Growing Labor Movement Needs International Support

SOURCE: AP/Charles Dharapak

Prior to the downfall of former leader Hosni Mubarak, the government-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation, or ETUF, was the sole trade union in the country.

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After decades of political repression, the revolution in Egypt has made way for democratic reform. Yet this dramatic and unanticipated turn of events raises concerns that Egypt could get mired in lasting instability and conflict. Fostering democratic reform, promoting stability, and preventing conflict will require efforts on many fronts. But one essential task is reinforcing the country’s burgeoning trade union movement.

Trade unions are essential social institutions that serve multiple functions. They help broker the relationship between employers and employees, but they also mobilize workers to foster political participation as well as ensure that government policies are responsive to the needs of workers. Strong trade unions are essential for “just jobs,” or jobs complete with labor rights including the right to organize and collective bargaining, appropriate remuneration, social protections such as health care and pensions, and opportunities for economic mobility. Without just jobs democratic reform and stability in Egypt will prove to be elusive.

Egypt’s trade union movement is at an important juncture. Prior to the downfall of former leader Hosni Mubarak, the government-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation, or ETUF, was the sole trade union in the country. The right to form and join trade unions other than ETUF was heavily curtailed by the law. As the Mubarak regime came under attack during the revolution so did the ETUF. The ensuing transition made way for a proliferation of independent trade unions and a new independent federation composed of newly mobilized trade unions that were not allowed to exist previously.

But this poses a critical dilemma. Years of government support helped ETUF establish a strong foundation complete with funds, assets, and an education association that the newly formed trade unions do not have. ETUF represents over 2.5 million workers, most of whom are public-sector employees who will be without representation if the trade union federation were to be dissolved. At the same time, competition among the newer trade unions could potentially fragment the labor movement as the groups vie for resources and influence.

The international community—donor governments, international trade unions, and nonprofit organizations—will play a critical role in determining how the tension between ETUF and the newly formed Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions plays out.

First and foremost, the international community must determine a common position. Rather than choosing between the new independent federation and ETUF, the international community must put their own bargaining skills to use and broker an agreement between the two that roots out corruption from ETUF while making use of its existing foundation to also strengthen the independent federation.

Second, the international community must ensure that the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining are written into law as Egypt establishes a new constitution and government.

Third, the international community must help equip the newly formed independent federation with the tools and training it needs to represent and coordinate newly formed trade unions to secure a unified labor movement that protects and promotes the rights of workers through public policy and with employers.

Finally, any support that the international community provides the Egyptian labor movement must include an effort to strengthen the representation of women, and the active role that women play in the labor movement as Egypt undergoes democratic reform. Empowering Egyptian women in the labor force and in politics is crucial to the country’s economic modernization.

As Egypt evolves economically and politically so too must its trade union movement to accurately reflect the needs of workers in a dynamic economic, social, and political environment. The shape that Egypt’s labor movement takes will play a big role in ensuring that workers have all that they need to live and work with dignity and be contributing, productive members of the economy through just jobs. That in turn means greater political stability and broad-based prosperity—something the people of the Middle East and North Africa have demonstrated they aspire to. The international community must do its part to support turning these aspirations into a reality.

Sabina Dewan is the Director of Globalization and International Employment at American Progress.

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