“What is now happening is a big shift in Egypt’s strategy,” Karen Curtis, Chief of the Freedom of Association Branch at the International Labor Organization (ILO), tells Egyptian Streets, “it was not possible before for any other trade union organizations to freely organize, yet the new amendment to the law is a big first step to empower workers.”
For most of Egypt’s history, Egyptian trade unions were dominated by the state, with the Egyptian Trade Union Federation being the only representative of worker’s voices. This largely weakened the ability of workers to voice out their concerns and collectively organize to develop better trust and working relationships.
However, due to various socio-cultural and political changes, as well as the commitment of the Ministry of International Cooperation to strengthen Egypt’s inclusive and multilateral engagement with development partners, Egypt is working to prioritize and promote decent work and empower workers as part of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Better Work Program
On Monday, the ministry held a seminar to mark the launch of the new full ‘Better Work’ program, which is a joint initiative of the ILO and the International Finance Corporation aiming to strengthen labour relations and collective bargaining, as well as implement labour laws and practices that abide by international standards.
The seminar was in the presence of Mr. Mohamed Saafan, Minister of Manpower, representatives from the Ministry of International Cooperation, International Labor Organization and the federation of industries and workers, to encourage dialogue and capacity building.
Initially, Better Work program ran a limited pilot in Egypt between July 2017 and December 2018. Launched in March 2020, it will cover about 30 factories in the first stage, with further to be anticipated as more progress is made.
“There is a lot of potential in Egypt, and members of the ILO can see that employers here are eager and engaged to abide by the rules of the game and that there is commitment to empower workers and promote decent work,” Curtis adds.
The program will offer factory assessment, advisory and training services to build the capacity of the workers and ensure better working conditions, sharing factory level data with international brands as well as responsible business practices with the employers.
However, to promote decent work, the program will also work on promoting trust and social dialogue to strengthen Egypt’s trade unions.
“The whole idea behind having a trade union is that you have greater chance for dialogue and engagement. Women who are not unionized and are only in a one-way relationship with their employer puts them in a vulnerable situation, meaning that they cannot collectively voice their concerns,” Curtis notes, “without representation, they will not be able to voice their concerns in their work environment.”
Egypt ratified many labour conventions, including the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention of 1948 and the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention of 1949.
The new amendments now allow all workers to form labour committees with 50 members, and for workers in organisations with less than 50 staff members to form a labour committee and join with other workers in different professions.
The 2014 constitution also stipulates that unions should have legal personality, freely conduct activities, and protect rights and defend members’ interests, and cannot be dissolved other than by court rulings.
It is worth noting that the cooperation portfolio between Egypt and the International Labor Organization includes many important development projects that support the government’s efforts to create decent and sustainable job opportunities, most prominent projects are the “Creating Job Opportunities and Private Sector Development in Egypt” project, and the “Decent Jobs for Youth in Egypt” project.
From a gender perspective, the program also aims to support the garment industry to provide adequate job opportunities and empower women, which can increase exports of goods or services that intensively rely on female labor.
In 2019, garment exports from Egypt earned $1.598 billion, according to the data released by the Readymade Garments Export Council (RMGEC), making it the second largest sector after agriculture.
However, the industry is seen to still carry a lot of potential for international brands. “There is an increasing supply of workers, declining wages in comparison with other countries, and the availability of fertile land for growing long-staple cotton, which rarely exists elsewhere,” Magdy Tolba, chairman of Cairo Cotton Center, tells the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt.
In 2017, following the initial launch of the program, Manpower Minister Mohamed Saffan noted that it resulted in the lifting of ban imposed by a US company on Egyptian exports, reflecting Egypt’s progress and commitment to abide with international standards.
The floating of the Egyptian pound in 2016 also established an export-friendly economy, which is yet to coupled with building the capacity of workers, adherence to international standards and environmental and health regulations, and producing world-class quality products, which all come as part of the package of the ‘Better Work’ program.