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The impact of structural adjustment on trade unions in Egypt

By Laila Gad


The following research focuses on trade union organisations, and in particular trade union officialdom in Egypt. The study examines the extent to which trade union officials at the various levels of the trade union hierarchy are reacting to reforms instigated by structural adjustment policies. The adoption of structural adjustment and economic reform measures as proposed by the World Bank and IMF have resulted in the government's withdrawal of some of the benefits and privileges it accorded to workers. Public sector workers are particularly affected by these changes, thereby posing a challenge to trade union officialdom, since the bulk of trade union membership is within the public sector. Trade union officials are reacting to the reform measures by trying to balance their role as representatives of workers' interests and their role in administering state policy. Whereas in the past these two roles were reconcilable, however, with liberalisation of the economy and the adoption of structural adjustment measures that is no longer tenable. Trade unionism has been weakened by the incorporation of union officials within government corporate structures, making it more difficult for trade union officialdom to challenge the reform measures adopted by the government. Rather, trade union officials are opting for `co-operation' both with the government and with management in enterprises, to the cost of workers. In enterprises, trade union officials emphasise that the interests of work and workers are inseparable. At the level of the confederation and general unions, union officials present themselves as working to keep workers' rights, but also as partners with the government in its drive for growth. By so doing trade union officials are de-politicising trade unionism, and instead focus on economic gains. Union officials are redefining their role away from workers. Trade union action at the various levels is not based on what workers want or demand, but rather on what trade union officials want, in the belief that workers do not truly know their interests. As a result, trade union action has promoted the interests of union officials rather than that of the workers. Trade unionism has become in a sense a shell without a content. However, there is evidence that there are pressures to democratise trade unionism and make it more responsive to worker demands. These pressures are from within the worker base, from trade union officials particularly at the enterprise level who are affilited to political parties, and from external forces like the Islamists. However these forces have their limitations, particularly in the face of institutionalised sectors that are capable of reproducing themselves and promoting their interests

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