Business and Human Rights in Egypt: Report on a civil society meeting

On 6 May, almost 25 representatives of Egyptian civil society
organizations met to discuss issues of corporate accountability for human
rights in Egypt. The meeting was co-hosted by Habi Center for
Environmental Rights and Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. The
organizations present at the meeting work in many different areas – from
women’s rights, to workers’ rights; from civil and political rights to the
environment. Some had not met each other before. However they found
common ground in the need to push for more responsibility, transparency and
accountability from the business sector: including multinational firms with
operations in or links to Egypt; Egyptian companies, and also those operating
in the informal economy.

The organizations shared details of specific cases and
challenges, and ways in which they can work together. Among the priority
issues discussed were:

– The government’s recent decision to allow imports of
for fuelling cement plants, following pressure from the cement
industry that has been facing increasing gas prices and reduced production from
power shortages. The use of coal is expected to put the health of
thousands of Egyptians in danger– the coalition “Egyptians Against Coal” is
pushing for a reversal of this decision. Other environmental impacts were
also discussed, including the existing effects of pollution from industries in
Alexandria and Helwan. Legal actions against the government for
failing to curb pollution are an important strategy, but also an uphill battle,
with many cases currently stalled in the courts.

– Lack of information about “hidden” and informal
– which makes it particularly difficult to hold them
accountable. A high proportion of the economy is in the informal sector;
earlier this year the Finance Minister said it makes up
about 30 percent of the economy and employs 40 percent of the labour
force. This makes preventing and remedying abuses difficult.
Participants described cases of state-owned land leased to un-registered
factories that make widespread use of child labour, for example. Linked
with informality is large-scale tax avoidance: which deprives the government of
resources that could (if managed right) be allocated to combatting poverty and
inequality. The opaque nature of military-owned business interests is
another major challenge.

– The widespread repression of labour movements and
in the country: involving the sometimes-violent dispersal and
intimidation of striking workers, and arrests of trade union leaders who are
pushing for improved working conditions. This is in a climate where trade
union activity is portrayed as impeding much-needed economic development, which
fuels broader public antipathy to unions. Additionally, many
manufacturing, industrial and agricultural workers face dangerous workplaces,
and often lose their livelihoods when they are injured.

All of this is in the context of an environment in which the
“space” for civil society to act is more and more restricted. This takes
the form of physical repression as described above, but also legal
restrictions. The labour law prohibits the right to strike in certain
sectors; and despite the creation of more trade unions following the overthrow
of Mubarak, pending revisions may impose greater restrictions again. New
amendments to the Investment Law prohibit citizens from questioning or challenging
government contracts with private enterprises – just when many new deals are
being signed with International, and Gulf firms as well as others. An
Assembly Law approved in November 2013 restricts the right to protest in public
spaces, by, for example, requiring government approval for public gatherings
and allowing police crack-downs. And the NGO Law makes it extremely
difficult for civil society organizations to register and operate.

In this context, it becomes all the more important both to
strengthen links between actors working within Egypt on similar causes, as well
as to pay increased attention to the international business dimension – where
companies can be more responsive to calls for accountability and hence change
their conduct. Curbing business’ human rights abuses is one of a
far broader range of challenges in Egypt; but it is one that permeates many
aspects of life, and where more action can be expected in the coming months and


Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is
an international non-profit that raises awareness of companies’ human rights
impacts globally. Its headquarters are in the UK, with researchers based
in 11 other countries; drawing attention to the human rights impacts (positive
& negative) of over 5600 companies worldwide.

The Habi Center for Environmental Rights was
founded in 2001. It is an Egyptian non-profit organization and works on
the environmental rights of the Egyptian citizens and corporate accountability
and human rights. The Habi center focuses on the right of citizens to
participate in the management of resources, on the right to information and the
right to redress. The center works on the right to drinking water,
climate change and energy from gas, oil and other sources.

Annabel Short
Program Director
Business & Human Rights Resource Centre