CAIRO — Better Work Egypt has sailed with the export-oriented garment industry through the worst of a months-long coronavirus slowdown. Now it’s ready to help the country navigate the waves of its economy restart and work on its compliance with international labour standards.
The programme is one of the three pillars of the ILO’s project “Strengthening Labour Relations and its Institutions in Egypt” (SLARIE), which also includes the promotion of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights alongside the establishment of an enabling environment for sound labour relations.
Officially launched a week before the government imposed a countrywide lockdown in mid-March amid increasing coronavirus infections, the project has kept working on all components throughout the pandemic. As the country has started a new phase of coexistence with the virus, SLARIE’s activities are beginning to gain momentum.
Egypt began gradually reopening the economy in June, with the situation steadily improving ever since and with business slowly returning to the country. According to the IHS Markit’s Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI), September marked Egypt’s first economic expansion in 14 months due to a rise in export orders in August.
“We welcome the SLARIE project,” says H.E. Minister of Manpower Mohamed Saafan. “It will contribute to creating an enabling environment for the Better Work Programme and trade union organizations to operate and for the establishment of sound labour relations across the manufacturing sector.
The project aims to support an inclusive growth countrywide by developing the capabilities of its tripartite constituents and through compliance enhancements based on the ILO’s fundamental principles and rights at work. This will happen through interventions at the policy and enterprise level, especially in the textile and readymade garment sector.
As the country is seeing a modest turnaround after the devastating impact of the pandemic, ILO/Better Work local partners are expected to hold a new round of discussions later this month, following their first tripartite meeting in March. Stakeholders include members of Egypt’s Ministry of Manpower, Ministry of Trade and Industries, the Federation of Egyptian Industries and trade unions and workers representatives.
Discussions will touch on the trade union registration process, improvements needed for a representative tripartite dialogue at the national level, the identification of the constituents’ overall capacity building needs and COVID-19 response, among other topics.
“We have conducted a first round of consultations, one of the widest of this kind in Egypt,” says Marwa Salah-Abdou, SLARIE National Project Coordinator. “We have held over a dozen meetings with government representatives, worker groups, employer organizations and employers from different industries so far, listening to their challenges. Discussions touched on a string of interlinked topics spanning the revised Trade Union Law, the registration process for trade unions and the support required by constituents to translate this law into practice.”
Throughout the pandemic, Egypt’s Ministry of Manpower has been holding meetings with trade union representatives that have submitted registration documents, discussing their respective situations and the finalization of their registration.
Meanwhile, SLARIE consultations have also been organized with representatives of employers and workers’ organizations to collect their views on the trade union registration process and the new trade union law. These discussions have highlighted the need for enhanced capacity building on the new legal framework and its related international conventions.
“Through BWEG, we are supporting employers’ compliance with freedom of association through advisory and training services,” says Salah-Abdou, adding that her team was currently working on the capacity building needs assessment of the Ministry of Manpower’s departments responsible for the trade union registration, alongside a comprehensive assessment of the national labour dispute mechanism.
The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Egypt has slowed the pace of SLARIE/Better Work Egypt’s activities and services, including the registration of interested garment factories with the programme. Still, some 40 firms have eventually enrolled in the first phase. More than half of some 21,500 workers employed in these plants are women.
Better Work Egypt offered several orientation sessions through August to explain its action on the ground, made of assessments, advisory services, industry seminars and training.
Advisory services have been delivered virtually during this period, focusing on COVID-19 and other OSH issues. Meanwhile, the programme started to conduct its first in-person assessments of every participating factory in August.
“We have hired a group of Enterprise Advisors and started training them on virtual factory services,” Salah-Abdou says. “The first round of advisory sessions happened in a virtual form during the country’s lockdown, and have currently been replaced by in-person visits for both, advisory services and assessments.”
Throughout the crisis, Egypt’s Manpower Ministry, Better Work Egypt and their partners have mostly focused on the implementation and supervision of preventive measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus at the workplace and across the factory floor in particular.
“Five hundred twenty-seven Manpower Ministry-trained OSH field inspectors have worked to address concerns and doubts on the ground concerning measures to avert infection,” says H.E. Minister of Manpower Mohamed Saafan. “The cooperation with the ILO project has proved very fruitful throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, joining hands for the creation of COVID-19 awareness posters to shed light on symptoms and prevention measures at the workplace.”
Posters have been shared through the ministry’s website as well as through the Federation of Egyptian Industries and workers’ organizations platforms. Five thousand printed copies have also been distributed among their respective members.
In collaboration with the Manpower Ministry, local partners have also developed a COVID-19 precautionary manual. Around 30,000 printed copies have been distributed to tripartite constituents and enterprises so far.
Meanwhile, Better Work Enterprise Advisors have started to begin collaborating with OSH committees. Capacity building has so far happened through regular tele-advisory sessions, which targeted field inspectors and OSH officers at the enterprise level.
Plans for the technical assistance for the upgrading of the digital inspection system already in place across Egypt are also in the pipeline and will be implemented throughout the project. Last month, work also started on the improvement of reporting levels and the creation of an interactive interface, to allow employers to access inspection results and promote a swift interaction with national inspectorates.