Hope amidst conflict: The workers’ struggle in Arab countries today

Public Services International sub-regional secretary Ghassan Slaiby reported on a meeting held in Jordan to discuss the current challenges facing trade unions in the Arab region. The meeting was attended by diverse global union federations, union representatives, the International Labour Organization’s Workers’ Bureau and members of solidarity funders and civil society groups in the autumn of 2013. The ITUC’s proposal for a new regional structure, and the situation in Egypt were also discussed.

Slaiby noted that while it is true that the situation in the region is unstable and uncertain, “It is also true that we are in a long term process leading to democracy and that we should act accordingly.” The ITUC has agreed to update a strategy document that was first produced two years ago, by introducing new developments and in particular the conflict between religious and secular tendencies.

The political scene

There are varying levels of conflict and war within Arab countries, but human rights violations persist in all. National situations are complicated by external interferences from USA, Russia, Turkey and Iran. Tensions are further increased across Shiite, Muslim Brotherhood, progressive and other secular interests. Three countries do not recognize the right to organize trade unions (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates).

However, there are positive indicators for change, including the continued popular uprisings against despotism and tyranny, the phenomenon of new independent unions, and initiatives for change in some non-independent and democratic unions and national federations.

Labour challenges

Some important figures were presented at the meeting:

  • There are 200 million workers across the work forces, some 40% in the informal sector
  • 16 to 20 million migrant workers
  • 7 million children working under the legal age.

A new ITUC regional structure for Arab countries

The ITUC and some Arab independent federations and unions are considering forming an independent Arab confederation within the structure of ITUC. This is to create a democratic and independent space for unions and federations that do not want to belong to the ICATU (International Confederation for Arab Trade Unions) which national federations close to the authoritarian political regimes belong to.  

This new formation would include the federations of Tunisia, Palestine, Bahrain, Morocco, Mauritania, Egypt and the SNAPAP from Algeria.

Slaiby notes that to be successful this initiative must ensure that the members of this new structure are really independent and democratic and that this formation will have real autonomy in relation to the ITUC itself and not just be an extension of it. This means allowing members of the new Arab body to formulate the vision and policy.

The situation in Egypt

Representatives from the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress (EDLC), and the Council of Human Rights spoke.

The two independent federations are continuing their struggle to achieve a trade union law that guarantees the freedom of association. They explained that a new labour law has been finalized by the new Minister of Labour with the contribution of the two independent federations and some civil society associations. But the government has not yet approved the proposal.

The two federations explained that they are not accepting all that is done by the government or the army and are ready to oppose any policy or action considered to be against the workers’ interests. They issued declarations against the interference of the army in strikes and they held a press conference against the lack of representation of the independent federations in the constitution committee.

Final recommendations

The participants recommended the following:

  1. Commending the Arab people for their ongoing struggle to fight all forms of oppression and persecution in order to build a community based on social justice, equality, and public and individual freedoms, including the freedom of association;
  2. Increasing the coordination of positions and interventions in the Arab region to strengthen the capacity of the independent, democratic and representative trade union movement to help such a movement play its role fully in defending worker’s interests and in the democratic transition in the relevant countries;
  3. Welcoming the new ITUC Arab Region structure, and providing all forms of support and assistance whether financial or educational, namely during this critical phase facing the democratic trade union movement in the region;
  4. Promoting the support for the PGFTU in its struggle to protect the Palestinian workers rights, including the Palestinian workers who work for the Israeli employers, against the discrimination and persecution they are subjected to;  and promoting the support for the PGFTU in its struggle to defend the Palestinian people right in liberating their territory and building their independent state, with East Jerusalem as its capital;
  5. Continuing and boosting the support for the UGTT in facing the attempts that aim to divert it from its pioneering role in defending workers’ interests and securing the democratic transition process;
  6. Supporting the independent trade union movement in Egypt (EFITU and EDLC) in their demands for:
    1. Approving the Freedom of Association Law
    2. Amending the Labor Law to comply with the international labor standards
    3. Implementing a minimum/maximum wage law
    4. Full revision of all existing social legislations
    5. Expediting the construction of the elected democratic institutions
    6. Finding solutions for the cumulative social files in the context of social dialogue, and involving all democratic powers that denounce violence and abide by the values of freedom, justice and equality;
  7. Continuing the support for the GFBTU which is facing all forms of harassment and persecution by the Bahraini authorities, reiterating that the GFBTU is the legitimate representative of the Bahraini workers.