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Conference on Labor Standards in an Era of Globalization

December 11-13, 2003
A report to Grassroots International


This conference was convened in Cairo and hosted by the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), an Egyptian organization with a similar structure, mission and political legacy to that of the DWRC in Palestine. It was sponsored by NOVIB (none of whose representatives attended). Close to 100 people, most of them activists from Egyptian trade unions, participated in the conference. The overwhelming majority were men, many of them long-time veterans of Egyptian labor struggles. Nearly half the staff of the host organization and several of the younger participants were women, however, as were a third of the international visitors, who came mainly from Europe, apart from one from South Africa and one (me) from North America. Conference sessions focused on issues and problems facing Arab trade unions that arise both from the new global economic context and from the repressive domestic conditions in which workers seek to organize themselves. While the daily meetings built toward a final plenary aimed at generating an action agenda among Egyptian trade unionists, the conference also brought together representatives of a half-dozen workers’ rights centers to establish a regional organization dedicated to reviving and democratizing their nearly moribund trade union movements. The creation of this network—the Arab Organization for Workers’ Education— was accomplished in a meeting held the day after the conference formally adjourned. The founders include organizations from Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Morocco. Among the countries targeted for near-term expansion are: Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Yemen, Tunisia and Mauritania. The founders set up a five-member executive committee to draft a constitution and prepare for a general conference in 2004 at which they hope to draw in more organizations, and they affiliated with the International Federation of Worker Education Associations (IFWEA) as its Middle East branch. The new organization’s mission, like that of its founding members, will be to educate workers about their rights under national and international law; to assist workers in campaigning for democracy within existing trade unions or, if needed, to initiate new ones; and to provide social and legal services to workers where they are not offered by existing trade unions. They plan to establish a center in Amman as a base for a branch-organizer and for a labor school to train worker organizers. DWRC director Hassan Barghouthi will be the new organization’s regional coordinator.

The Conference

The conference opened with a session on globalization and the third world in which such issues as the new mobility of capital and the role of the nation-state in this new era were explored. Speakers discussed the impact of globalized production on an increasingly segmented and disempowered work force and argued that labor needs to form new alliances—with workers elsewhere in the third world and in the first world, as well as with social movements and consumers—in order to expand and defend workers’ rights. Subsequent sessions focused on problems for the trade union movement in countries like Egypt, where many workers find themselves employed by newly privatized firms that are sub-contracting to transnational corporations over which the workers have little if any leverage and about which they have little information. Local union officials have suddenly to learn international issues in new ways, link up with counterpart unions in far-flung areas of the world, and generate alliances with other social movements and organizations to have any impact on the new owners. However, in many cases their federations remain heavily bureaucratized (and state-controlled) and are unresponsive if not hostile to the interests of their members. As a consequence, the unions themselves are shrinking in numbers and influence From here, we looked at the obstacles to trade union organizing in the Arab world and in other African states. A number (Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroun, Eritrea, for example) do not permit their trade unions to affiliate internationally. Some ban free association in the workforce altogether. Many ban solidarity strikes. Most exercise heavy political control of such unions as do exist: appointing leaders, limiting the involvement of the rank-and-file and often prohibiting protests against such arrangements. Most trade unions in these countries lack a deep understanding of globalization—how it works, how it affects them, what others are doing to challenge it—while other civil society organizations often have more developed analysis. This brought the discussion back to the need for broader alliance-building among democratic trade unionists. We spent another session exploring the WTO and the ILO and their relevance to workers’ rights issues in the Arab world in terms of both setting and enforcing standards, and we discussed the potential for linkages with American and other workers whose interests in strengthening enforcement of labor standards coincide with Arab workers. But we came back again and again to the need for democratic, worker-driven trade unions to promote and sustain this sort of social movement unionism. We then looked at the terrible conditions that workers—and all citizens, for that matter—face in this and similarly repressive Arab states when they try to organize for democratic rights. On the last day, we broke up into smaller groups to tackle specific subject areas, ranging from the short- and medium-term agenda for the Egyptian trade union movement to the role of international solidarity organizations in nurturing democracy and workers’ rights in the region. I reproduce below the recommendations from the international solidarity subcommittee.

The Agenda for International Organizations

1. Strengthen interactive communication

2. Build an emergency response network

3. Strengthen international relations with Arab trade unions and labor centers

4. Work to strengthen relations among labor centers in the Arab world

5. Support the development of a labor school

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