The future of Arab labor movements

While Arab labor unions have been co-opted by the ruling regimes to serve the authorities' interests, these groups are reconsidering their futures in light of the Arab Spring uprisings.

al-monitor A stranded passenger waits inside a train during a strike by train drivers in Cairo, April 7, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.

Topics covered

suppression of freedoms, workers union, public sector, labor unions, labor market, human rights, government corruption, arab economy

Dec 11, 2013

The social earthquake happening in the Arab region has led the labor movement and its unions to reconsider a number of fundamental questions about their role in society and their relationship with the state, political forces and other civil society organizations. It has also led them to re-examine their participation in adopting economic and socio-political choices, as well questions about their structure, organizational makeup and work tools. What is happening today on the ground — in public spaces and workplaces — represents a historic opportunity for the labor movement to restore its missing role. It is a chance for the movement to restore social balance for the benefit of millions of impoverished male and female Arab workers. This not only relates to the distribution of wealth, but also the fact that they have been deprived of any form of representation and active participation when it comes to deciding their future and that of their countries. 


Arab labor unions — like other social organizations and structures — have been exposed to pressures and exploitation by the authorities. These unions have shattered, and transformed from a tool to represent the interests of workers into a tool in the hands of authorities to silence and overshadow them. This led to the unions losing the trust of workers, because the latter were stripped of their role and distanced from the goals for which they were established. 

Workers rejected the existing official trade unions and their leaders and new organizations were formed. These new unions called themselves "independent unions" and tried to distinguish themselves from the governmental organizations. These "independent unions" first began to take shape with the founding of the Independent Union of Real Estate Tax in Egypt in 2009. These new unions were an attempt to refocus on the weight and role of internal social forces in influencing the outcome of social and political balances and conflicts at the national level. 

The Arab labor movement emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. It grew as a result of the spread of wage labor by Western colonialism on the one hand, and the emergence of political movements fighting for independence from the occupier, and the growth of leftist and nationalist thought that extended to the active social elites on the other. The labor movement was able to spread among workers in the textile, printing, tobacco production and transportation sectors in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, and among those in the oil sector in Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq.

The labor movement entered the struggle early on at the level of labor issues, in order to ensure trade union rights and improve the terms and conditions of employment. The movement also worked, on the nation level, for independence from colonial powers. But the battle for national liberation soon imposed itself as a priority for the labor unions and their various trade union organizations. The movement adjusted its structure and goals for the sake of liberation movements and formed a political and tactical framework to support the national movement in these countries, and offered martyrs. 

After these countries achieved independence, the labor movement succeeded in obtaining official recognition of their existence. Post-independence constitutions enshrined the right to assembly for citizens, including the right to form trade unions, political parties and associations. 

Governments also issued laws to regulate labor markets. However, the forces that took power in independent Arab states issued warnings against the labor movement, and passed laws that restricted or banned the right to organize, strike and demonstrate. The authorities imposed conditions that allowed them to intervene in the affairs of the labor movement, meaning that they could co-opt existing trade unions or establish new ones that supported the authorities. 

The occupation of Palestine, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of its citizens to neighboring Arab countries, led to a political earthquake. This brought a new military elite to positions of power, which raised slogans of forming a unified Arab state on the basis of socialism and the liberation of Palestine. This is what happened in Egypt, then Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Algeria. These slogans gained widespread support an sympathy among the public and laborers. 

Yet the measured adopted by the authorities to stabilize the new regimes — declaring a state of emergency, abolishing the right to assembly and to strike, dissolving political parties and trade unions, and silencing voices of dissent — led to splits in the labor movement and its unions, among those who supported the government and others who were skeptical of it. On the other hand, the new Arab authorities' position toward the labor movement was no different. 

The authorities quickly launched operations to ensure submission and to secure the loyalty of workers. This included direct repression (two unionists, Mohammed Mustafa Khamis and Mohammed Abdel-Rahman al-Baqri were executed in Egypt in a span of less than 20 days in 1952). These new regimes asserted that these operations were for the sake of the people and expressed reflected the people's interests. The authorities also relied on the argument that national issues should be given priority over social ones, under the slogan, "No voice is louder than the that of battle." 

The authorities imposed a trade-off via agreements that resembled implicit social contacts. The regimes would be responsible for workers' basic rights — in terms of work, pay, housing, retirement and free education and medical care — in exchange for their submission to the authorities' political decisions and renouncing all forms of protests, including their right to organize. The regimes also gave unions formal representation (in the Egyptian constitution of 1952, workers and farmers were allotted 50% of seats in the People's Assembly and Shura Council, as was the case in Syria and Iraq after the Baath Party came to power), while ensuring certain privileges and gains for union leaders. 

The new regimes' decisions to rely on policies of a state monopoly of capital, nationalization, land reform and the expansion of the public sector, played a key role in reducing opposition within the ranks of the labor movement. The initial success of these policies — which made quantum leaps in the material conditions of the Arab peoples, in terms of work security, higher wages and improved basic services — eliminated any opposition within the labor movement to this implicit agreement. This gave "legal" justification for the union leaders to give up on the principles and roles of their organizations for the sake of the state apparatuses, which later succeeded in gaining full control of these unions. 

Whenever possible, the regimes imposed the establishment of a unified national trade union that was primarily composed of public sector workers and was financed via compulsory membership. The governments also ratified laws that were specific to each labor sector, thus disrupting the integrity of the main body. Thus, trade unions transformed into bureaucratic state apparatuses, and served as a means for advancement in the hierarchy of power. In Egypt, for example, the minister of labor is appointed from among the leaders of the official trade union.

Disruption of the implied social contract

The fragility of Arab economies and the failure of the development policies that had been adopted led Arab governments to undertake economic reforms that reversed their previous decisions. In accordance with the dictates of the IMF and the World Bank, these regimes embarked on privatizing the state's production enterprises, reducing the size of the public sector, opening the markets and trade liberalization. They adopted the principle of work flexibility as a condition for establishing the new economic models. This led to the end of job security, a freeze on wages, and the expansion of the informal economy. The latter now contains the largest number of employees, and they are deprived of their most basic rights. 

It also increased the number of migrant workers in the Arab region. These migrants work in conditions that are akin to slavery. The number of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia alone exceeds 9 million, with most of them coming from Africa and Southeast Asia. Addressing the governmental fiscal deficit was at the heart of the so-called "structural reforms." Public services were reduced and the quality of education, medical care and other basic services declined. This meant that the implicit social contract had in fact come to an end, from one side. 

The official labor union movement constituted one of the regime's tools to justify its new economic choices. This official movement limited its demands to calling for better conditions for public sector workers seeking early retirement, thus disregarding the interests of millions of male and female workers who were not protected by any trade union. 

This drove workers — particularly those in the public sector and in sectors that had been privatized in some Arab countries — to form independent trade unions outside the framework of the official union. They began to communicate with workers in the information sectors — especially those groups that had embarked or were embarking on movements to demand rights — to help them establish their trade organizations. This emerged as a new beginning for the Arab trade union movement. However, this attempt is facing counterpressure, led by the governmental trade union organizations. 

The trade union movement and the Arab uprisings

Popular and labor-based activity had led to confusion on the Arab trade union scene. On the one hand, the weak nature of the official trade union movement emerged on two levels. The first was the regional level, represented by the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, which supported the regimes against popular protests. The confederation was established in Damascus in 1965, at the initiative of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and included various Arab trade unions. However, the confederation did not acknowledge that there were multiple trade unions in each country, and included only one trade union from each Arab state. Second was the national level, represented by the governmental trade unions. It is worth noting that most of the Arab trade unions supported the governments in the Arab Spring uprisings, with the exception of the Tunisian and Bahraini unions). 

On the other hand, an Arab labor movement has emerged that seeks to form independent trade union structures, as is happening in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. The latter witnessed the emergence of the largest union-based protest movement in decades, which — for the first time — included the participation of public sector workers who had been deprived of their rights. 

The current confusion

The current confusion among the labor movement is intensified by the complex nature of the path toward change in the countries of the Arab uprisings, as well as by the lack of clarity surrounding the results of the conflict over the nature and form of the new regimes, and the desired economic and social changes. This is particularly true in light of the absence of a strategic vision for the labor movement — concerning the latter's economic choices, work mechanisms, tools, and future inclinations in its relationship with the authorities and all components of society 

This has contributed to the semi-segregation that is occurring in the ranks of the Arab labor movement. The movement is divided between the independent organizations and the governmental unions. The former are demanding workers' rights to organize, strike and demonstrate, as well as higher wages, improved working conditions and a social welfare state. On the other hand, the governmental unions — based on their legal status as the sole representative of the workers — have expressed their willingness to reach a new settlement with the governments, without showing any real concern for the workers' demands. 

The features of the independent union movement and its challenges

The laws restricting the work of unions are still in place. The ability of these emerging movements to expand is crippled, in light of private sector employers' refusal to recognize independent unions and the difficulties of working in an informal economy. Moreover, these unions suffer from weak material resources and their members have little experience in organization. They were launched by public sector employees, or those working in sectors that were privatized, and thus benefited from the experience of these workers. The difficulties facing this emerging movement are exacerbated by the partial nature of the demands they are working for, which prevents the formation of solidarity between workers. This is something that can only be solved via a comprehensive vision for alternative economic and social development choices. This would allow the labor movement to engage effective in the process of democratic change in these societies. 

The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.

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