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Labor and Labor Unions


depending on the country, trade unions in the middle east are nonexistent (in some cases, illegal), state-controlled, or independent, but they rarely represent many workers effectively.

There are also an increasing number of socioeconomic problems (from child labor to the situation of migrant labor to widespread adult unemployment) that they can do little to address although these problems have been worsened by the impact of globalization on much of the region.

Formal trade-union structures in the Middle East grew out of European imperialism and colonialismespecially from the extension of capitalist markets and the introduction of mechanized production. From a relatively undeveloped division of labor with a guild form of collective action, the labor force now comprises a clearly articulated division of labor, new means of production, and workers who own nothing but their labor power. This process occurred relatively quickly in each locality but at very different times. The critical period was from the beginning of the twentieth century until shortly before World War I. After World War II, Middle Eastern economies became relatively closed, socialist, or quasi-socialist. Trade unions played secondary roles and have often been subordinated to state policies.

During the late years of the Ottoman Empire (in Anatolia and the Arab provinces) and the Qajar dynasty (in Iran), peasant production predominated. Urban areas accounted for little more than 15 percent of the economy. Industry was largely artisanal (skilled manual labor), based on simple instruments of production. The division of labor within productive enterprises was slight. Competition from European production often forced domestic artisanal and craft producers out of old sectors and into new ones and new government structures reduced the effective support of the state for their associations. In Iran and Egypt, integration into the world capitalist market reduced the role of artisans and craftsmen in textile production and animal transport even as it opened up some new sectors of the economy. Something similar occurred in Tunisia, although there foreign domination began in the late 1800s.

Direct colonial control, where it existed, transformed property rights to allow the creation of capitalist corporations and also the political power European and local entrepreneurs needed to affect tariff regulations and local costs to ensure their success. Trade unions arose in the context of European colonial domination and thus invariably engaged not only in local social conflict but in the political struggles over control of the various states.

Foreign capitalists used access to political power and to external sources of capital to take advantage of cheap local raw materials and labor in most of the Arab world (but this was somewhat less true of the relatively more independent states of Turkey and Iran). In Palestine, the Arabs were gradually dominated by the European-backed Jewish settlers. In Tunisia, French control allowed the Europeans to command both the agricultural and the mineral sectors. In Iran and Iraq, foreigners (Europeans and Americans) provided the capital for developing the petroleum industry, and intense conflict over the role of the state occurred repeatedly.

European capitalists often introduced foreign (European) labor into the region at higher wages than local laborers could command. They also brought in local workers from various sections of the countryside to work in factories; their employees thus had little in common and were easily manipulated. In Palestine, this interplay of nationalist politics and social conflict was particularly acute because the socialist institutions of the Zionist labor movement often acted to exclude Palestinian Arabs from particular labor markets; the General Federation of Labor in Eretz Yisrael (Histadrut)unlike Arab, Turkish, or Persian trade unionscreated the foundations of a labor economy to support Zionist nationalism as well as to protect the rights of workers. Exceptionally, Histadrut thus had a dual role, as investor as well as trade union, insofar as Histadrut controls the Hevrat ha-Ovedim firm with its many subordinate companies. Elsewhere, the struggle of workers against capital was often perceived as a national struggle and was co-opted into the struggle of nationalist politicians.

Two important political currents guided the early labor movement. Marxist intellectuals from outside the working class brought the ideas of class struggle and "scientific socialism" into the working class and often (but not always) also recruited workers into Leninist political parties. Workers hostile to the dominance of the liberal professionals in their movement also created their own independent unions.

In the Maghrib (North Africa), and especially in Tunis, the struggle for independence reached a heroic climax with the creation of a separate labor-union structure, the Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (General Union of Tunisian Workers; UGTT). It was led by Ferhat Hached rather than French communists in 1946. Elsewhere in the Arab world, leaders of the trade-union movement associated with the nationalist left allied themselves with political elites. After gaining independence, they extended the power of the state over the economy by nationalizing firms and creating a corporate trade-union structure. State investments created large public sectors in most countries, and it is the workers in the public sector who usually make up the bulk of trade-union members.

Those countries in the Middle East with unions generally have a single, often compulsory, trade-union structure. Countries with single-, state-, or ruling-partycontrolled federations are Djibouti, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Iraq's public-sector employees were part of the state-controlled union federation until 1987, when the law was changed to exclude them so the state could cut its public-sector wage bill. Foreign nationals there, mainly Egyptians, are reported to be underpaid and mistreated. In these countries and in Egypt (where the Egyptian Trade Union Federation is formally separate from the state and the ruling National Democratic party), strikes by public-sector employees are illegal, and collective bargaining between workers and employers as equals is absent. The mid-1980s saw a renewal of protests and strikes in Egypt, especially in the public sector, as the government retreated from its social-welfare commitments. In many countries in the region, strikes are illegal and workers have few ways of challenging the power of the state or private employers.

The bulk of child labor in the region remains in agriculture but these children often work in export-intensive agriculture. By some estimates, there may be as many as two million children who work in Egypt. Most of them work in the fields, but they also play a role in urban small-scale production. Child labor is a problem on its own but it also inhibits the acquisition of literacy by substantial sections of the population.

Israel's Histadrut, although founded in 1920 in British-mandated Palestine, now controls significant economic resources through its associate institutionsthus remaining the state's sole trade union. Since 1953, Israeli Arabs have been accepted as members. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip lack strong unions; both the Israeli government and the Palestinian nationalist movement are uncertain about the long-term effects of unions, and, in the pre-1993 Israel-Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) accord atmosphere, union creation was difficult. In Lebanon and Jordan, autonomous and plural trade-union federations existin Lebanon, they continued to operate during the civil war.

In Tunisia, an independent trade-union federation with historic links to the ruling Neo-Destour party has operated independently and sometimes in antagonism to the state. The union federation was engaged in a massive wave of strikes in January 1977. In Morocco and Algeria, multiple trade-union federations exist independently of the state, and high unemployment coupled with low economic growth has produced labor unrest.

In Bahrain (where worker arbitration committees exist), Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, trade unions are illegal. Persistent reports exist of the arrests and executions of workers attempting to form unions in the eastern oil-rich provinces of Saudi Arabia, which also have large Shiʿite populations. Because a large part of the work-force in many of the countries of the Arabian peninsula are migrant laborers from elsewhere in the Arab world or from non-Arab Muslim countries, the absence of unions intensifies their liability to mistreatment. These workers, who in some cases make up a majority of the workforce, have no political rights and can be easily deported if they appear troublesome to their employers.

In Turkey, the trade-union movement was not integrated into the state, and plural union movements remained, the most important of which is the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (Türk Iş). Although dominant, Türk Iş faces competition from several other trade unions, notably DISK (The Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions, which was banned after the 1980 coup) and Islamic and Turkish nationalist confederations (Haqq Iş and MISK, respectively).

Trade unions in Iran have infrequently functioned freely since the 1950s. Between the 1953 coup and the 1979 Iranian revolution, the state actively intervened in trade-union affairs. After the revolution, there was (in addition to unions) an experiment in a broader form of workers' councils, known as shura. In 1983, the labor minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran failed to win passage of a restrictive new law. Most unions and the shura system were dissolved in 1985, and the government appears to have accepted the principle that workers and owners enter into individual contracts rather than collective agreements.

In the precolonial period, unions were often weak but provided workers with some independent voice in regard to the state and firm owners; in the post-colonial period, the material conditions of workers and their families have been more profoundly affected by decisions of central political authorities than by union struggles. If privatization continues to increase in Middle Eastern economies, "wildcat" struggles by workers are likely to increase. Privatized industries frequently attempt to increase profits by decreasing the size of the work force, thereby setting the stage for conflicts with unions (where they exist) and with sections of government that fear the impact of growing unemployment.

see also confederation of turkish trade unions; histadrut; labor zionism; union gÉnÉrale des travailleurs tunisiens (ugtt).


Batatu, Hanna. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Bayat, Assef. Workers and Revolution in Iran. London and Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Zed Press, 1987.

Economic Research Forum. Economic Trends in the MENA Region. Cairo: The Forum, 1998.

Goldberg, Ellis. The Social History of Labor in the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996.

Lockman, Zachary. Workers and Working Classes in the Middle East. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

United Nations Development Programme, Regional Bureau for Arab States. Arab Human Development Report 2002: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations. New York: Author, 2002.

ellis goldberg

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