Cairo: Egypt holds on Wednesday its first trade union polls in 12 years, with more than 20,000 hopefuls running nationwide.

The polls, to be conducted in two stages, are held according to a new law issued last year recognising independent trade unions that have established a strong foothold in Egypt in recent years.

Non-governmental trade unions mobilised labour protests against a controversial privatisation programme that resulted in massive layoff during the reign of president Hosni Mubarak, who was forced to resign in a 2011 popular uprising.

In the post-Mubarak era, these unions also pushed for better work conditions, including higher wages.

Authorities have promised a fair and free vote.

“The elections will be held within a framework of full transparency and impartiality with the aim of establishing a strong trade union organisation that expresses workers and contributes to increase in production,” Manpower Minister Mohammad Safan said.

He added that the polls will be conducted under judicial supervision.

Foreign labour watchdogs have criticised Egypt in recent years, claiming abuses in workers’ rights in the country.

The first stage of the vote covers sectors of overland transport, trade, agriculture, irrigation, fisheries, insurance, banks, tourism, oil and administrative sectors.

The second, scheduled for May 31, entails sectors of maritime and air transport as well as food industries, textiles, chemical industries, the postal service and telecommunications.

The election has generated mixed reactions among trade unionists.

“Holding the elections after 12 years is a historic and important event,” Mohammad Wahaballah, the head of pro-government Egypt’s General Trades Union Federation, said in media remarks.

“They will have a positive impact on the country’s economic and political fields. The elections have also international importance for Egypt regarding its status in the reports of the International Labour Organisation,” Wahaballah, the deputy head of the parliament’s manpower committee, added. He expected that the vote will lead to a “strong trade union movement” in Egypt.

Kamal Abbas, a prominent trade unionist, criticised the short time of the electoral process.

“It does not make sense that the process duration starting from allowing independent trade unions to readjust their status according to the new law through holding the elections and announcing the results takes only three months,” Abbas said.

He added that contenders did not have enough time for campaigning.

“I think the aim of rushing in holding the elections is to give the government the chance to go to the conference of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) due in Geneva in June with a new trade union grouping in Egypt, thus helping remove its name from the short-term list of the countries that violate workers’ rights.”

Last year, ILO placed Egypt on its blacklist, citing violations by the government of workers’ rights, including arrest of labour protesters and curbs on independent trade unions.