The Egyptian authorities are complicit in an ongoing crackdown against dozens of factory workers who went on a peaceful strike this summer to demand fair pay, an investigation by Amnesty International has found.
Between 26 July and 1 August, around 2,000 employees of LORD International, an Egyptian manufacturer of razor blades with several factories in Alexandria, went on strike to demand higher wages and job security. In response, LORD’s management launched a campaign of punitive measures which saw 64 workers unfairly dismissed and 83 suspended and subjected to wage cuts, coercive interrogations and threats.
Ministry of Manpower failed to take any action to provide redress to workers who faced reprisals for their involvement in the strike, instead dismissing their official complaints and pressuring them to end their “illegal strike”.
“Egyptian authorities have failed to protect striking LORD workers from unfair dismissals and other punitive measures simply for daring to express legitimate demands. They are consequently protecting the company’s interests at the expense of the workers’ rights both to organize freely and to strike, in line with Egypt’s constitution and international human rights law,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director.
The plight of LORD workers serves as a grim reminder of the authorities’ failure to respect and protect workers’ rights since 2013, and their actions to restrict the activities of independent trade unions and undermine the collective bargaining power of low-wage workers.
Philip Luther, Amnesty International.
Amnesty International spoke to five current and former workers and a labour lawyer who detailed unfair dismissals, forced resignations, and pay cuts following the strike. The organization also reviewed the reports of a local labour rights organization, as well as nine company statements announcing mass dismissals, suspensions and internal investigations. Amnesty International shared its findings with LORD International on 26 October 2021 but received no response.
Under Egyptian labour law, only authorized unions can hold strikes. This condition could not be met by LORD’s workers as its independent trade union established following the 2011 uprising, was dissolved after the adoption of the 2017 draconian trade union law. Despite reforms to the law in 2019, the Egyptian government continues to refuse to formally recognize new independent trade unions and therefore bans all strikes that are not approved by the state-controlled federation of unions.
In June, Egypt introduced a new national minimum wage, requiring private-sector employers to pay a minimum of 2,400 EGP (153 USD) per month by January 2022. LORD International workers, some of whom receive monthly salaries of 2,000 EGP (127 USD), had been trying to collectively negotiate their salaries in line with this requirement since then, but the company refused to engage.
Workers told Amnesty they had decided to go on strike after LORD deducted a holiday bonus for Eid el-Adha on 26 July; the strike lasted one week.
Threats, harassment, and unfair dismissals
Amnesty International reviewed LORD company’s statements showing 45 workers were unfairly dismissed on 1 and 2 August for “inciting an illegal strike” and causing severe “damages to the company” and 39 others were suspended and referred to internal investigations between 1 and 5 August.
According to a local labour rights’ organization, between 1 August and 12 September, LORD unfairly dismissed 64 workers and referred 83 others to internal investigation, due to their involvement in collective industrial action.
The organization also found that between 22 August and 16 September, the company forced 10 particularly vocal long-term employees to resign after the internal investigation. It also refused to renew the contracts of at least five others for their alleged involvement in the strike.
The remaining 73 workers who were referred to internal investigations were subjected to other punitive measures for joining the strike, including pay cuts equivalent to wages for three to five working days. Between 30 August and 2 September, the company forced them to sign warnings issued by the company that they would be dismissed if they undertook similar action in future.
Workers described to Amnesty International how management questioned them aggressively about the identities of alleged strike instigators, ordered them to reveal the names of the journalists who covered the strike, and threatened them if they did not cooperate. Some told the organization that company managers threatened to fire them without compensation, to file suits against them for the “damage” they caused and to prevent them from finding another job.
Amnesty International has learnt that at least two workers were told if they did not sign their resignation papers instantly, they would be referred to the National Security Agency, a special police force that is notorious for human rights violations and involved in policing what the authorities consider to be “national security threats” including independent labour movements.
According to three workers who signed resignation letters, their redundancy payments fell short of Egypt’s labour law that stipulates workers must receive at least two months of gross salary for every year of employment.
Government failure to protect striking workers
On 26 July 2021, at least 100 workers filed a complaint at the Manpower Ministry calling for the implementation of the new private-sector minimum monthly wage. The next day, two government labour inspectors visited the factories and brokered a meeting between the workers’ representatives and the company’s managers.
According to four workers who were present, the labour inspectors ultimately sided with company management and found that management’s actions in pressuring workers to immediately end their strike had been lawful.
The company management suspended six workers who attended meetings and referred them to an internal investigation, and later forced five of them to resign.
Complainers to the Ministry of Manpower reported that officials failed to respond or effectively support them. One of the workers who submitted a complaint to the Ministry of Manpower in September regarding his unfair dismissal without compensation said that ministry officials told him they could not interfere and advised to find an amicable solution with his company.
The organisation received similar reports of government inaction in addressing abuses of workers’ rights by other private-sector companies.
“Instead of sanctioning such abuses, the Egyptian authorities must protect workers and ensure that all those dismissed have access to full compensation. They must also ensure the implementation of the new minimum wage in all private-sector companies,” said Philip Luther.
Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power, Egyptian authorities have subjected dozens of workers and trade unionists to unfair trials – some in military courts – arbitrary arrest, dismissal from work, and other disciplinary measures solely for exercising their right to strike and form independent trade unions. In September, the authorities arbitrary detained three Universal Company workers for two days pending investigations on terrorism-related charges solely for exercising their right to strike and peaceful protest.