Ebb, flow of trade unions in Arab world

By Dr. Marwan Asmar, Gulf News Online, 11 September 2003

The UAE's national labour union draft law has been in the pipeline for several years and is due to be approved by the cabinet in 2004.

The trade union will be limited to UAE citizens, although expatriates will be represented through chosen committees. This step is designed to bring the UAE into line with what is happening in other Arab countries and world wide developments regarding labour relations.

Today, there is union representation for a large part of the 98-million-strong labour force in the Arab world. Unions in the Arab world go back to 1946 when the first trade union was established in Sudan, although it was only in the early 1950s unions began to be established on a larger scale in North Africa before spreading to other Arab states.

All Arab unions are affiliated to the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU), a pan-Arab organisation established in 1956 in Cairo but based in Damascus since 1977.

Different forms of labour organisation now exist in almost every country in the region. Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya and Mauritania have workers' unions.

Bahrain has recently agreed to set up a trade union and more recently Saudi Arabia has followed the examples of Oman and Qatar where some form of worker's committees do exist.

The independence and activities of these organisations vary with the degree of government control over trade union practices.

All governments in the Arab world maintain a role in labour relations and the conduct of labour unions. This applies across the board, from countries with strict control like Syria or Libya, where unions are part of the political system, to the most liberal such as Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen.

For example, in Lebanon, government permission is required before the setting up of any union, it monitors their elections and can even dissolve them under the law.

Trade union activity

Trade unions in the Arab world undertake a number of activities and not just the withdrawal of labour. They are established to represent members in different occupations like oil workers, electricity workers, engineers or government employees.

Like the rest of the countries in the world, labour unions in the Arab world exist to look after the interests of their members and this takes variety of forms. While increasing wages of their members and improving work conditions is high on the list, trade unions organisations are also involved in making sure other important aspects like retirement and health insurance schemes are provided.

One example of how a unions is working to improve its members' lot, is the General Union of Workers in the Petrochemical Industry in Jordan. They are in negotiations with the Petroleum Refinery Company to secure health insurance and housing loans for workers after retirement. This kind of work, well short of the ultimate tactic of withdrawing labour, is constantly developing across the region.

Nonetheless, some Arab states do include the right to strike in their laws, although it usually involves compulsory bureaucratic intervention.

In Yemen for instance, there must be compulsory arbitration before any strike takes place, the time period allocated to this could be as long as 85 days.

In Morocco strikers can be taken to court by employers, and in Tunisia, workers may only resort to such action as long as it does not pose any danger to the lives of the population. The interpretation of these conditions lies with the government.

But strikes do take place. In Morocco for instance, 607 strikes occurred between 1996-1997. Despite their ban in Egypt, it was reported by the Land Centre for Human Rights that there were 80 strikes in 1998.

In Jordan there are 17 unions, but for strike action to take place, a prior approval from the authorities must be obtained. In Algeria and Lebanon it is similar. In Lebanon, the freedom to organise strikes is constrained by the fact that the authorities require prior notice of the number of people taking part. In addition, according to the ICTU website, five percent of the union members must be assigned to maintain order.

In the Gulf, Kuwait has a well-established tradition of trade unions. At present it has 14 trade unions. All but two—the Bank Workers' Union and the Kuwait Airways Workers' Union—are affiliated to the Kuwaiti Trade Union Federation.

The Federation in turn consists of nine white-collar unions from the public sector that has around 35,000 members and three unions in the oil sector of around 15,000 members.

Unions are independent organisations by law and while they have the right to organise and bargain collectively, they have to do so with compulsory prior arbitration through the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour.

The government also restricts the formation of unions to one occupational trade and subsidises 90 percent of the union budgets and overseas their financial records. The majority of trade union members are Kuwaitis, and although expatriates can join after five years of employment, they do not have voting rights.

International federations

Labour is organised across the Arab world through the Damascus-based ICATU. The strength of the unions varies widely from country to country, and there is substantial government involvement in most of their operations. Nonetheless, labour unions have become part and parcel of civil society in the Arab world.

In Egypt for instance, there are three million workers in the country's 23 trade unions, which all belong to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, the only recognised body by the state established in 1957.

However, it is in the North African states that first introduced the idea of mass unions. In 1955, the UMT (Union Marocaine Du Travail) was set up in Morocco. It was affiliated to the Socialist Party and today it has a membership of 410, 580 members.

In 1960, the Union Generale des Travailleurs du Maroc, was created, today it has 300,000 members and had close links with the Al Istiqlal Party. And in 1977, a yet another trade union organisation the Confederation Democratique du Travail (CDT), was established with 350,000 members, 50,000 of whom are women. In Algeria, union membership also stands 1,300,000.

Their membership strength resulted in their desire to create a supra-national labour organisations. In 1991 the Trade Union Confederation of the Arab Maghreb Countries was established. It comprises the Tunisian General Workers Union (UGTT), Algerian General Workers Union (UGTA), Moroccan Workers Union (UMT), Union of Mauritanian Workers (UTM) and the Libyan General Federation of Producers Trade Unions.


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