2 May, 2019“Welcome to the land of cedars and resistance!” was the message to the affiliated unions from eleven countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) who came to Beirut, Lebanon, for the regional conference on 23 and 24 April 2019.
Bringing together 85 union leaders, the statutory regional conference was opened by regional co-chairs Hashmeya Alsadawe of Iraq and Tahar Berberi of Tunisia, and IndustriALL vice president Abdelmajid Matoual of Morocco. They noted that the region is living in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which is still unfolding in Sudan and Algeria. This great political awakening brought progressive change to some countries, but the backlash fuels conflict and repression.
Despite this, MENA unions have great optimism for the future. The affiliates, united by IndustriALL Global Union, are a major stabilizing force, turning social demands into a struggle for greater rights.
IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches stressed the importance of the region to the global economy because of its oil and gas reserves. Workers globally face challenges of conflict, precarity, uberization, and the fourth industrial revolution. Only by standing together can we change things.
According to the ITUC Global Rights Index 2018, the MENA region was again the worst in the world for the treatment of workers, and conflict in Libya, Palestine, Syria and Yemen has led to the breakdown of the rule of law and the denial of the workers’ rights. Peaceful protests were violently repressed and attempts to form an independent labour movement were crushed by the authorities in various countries.
One country experiencing severe repression is Algeria, as the old guard struggles to hold onto power. A solidarity message was sent to SNATEG president Raouf Mellal, who was arrested shortly before the conference started.
An unexpected bright spot is Iraq, which until recently was mired in conflict, with many areas occupied by Islamic State. Unions have had a progressive effect on society, campaigning for the ratification of ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association, winning permanent contracts for precarious workers in the public sector, and helping to block the regressive Jaafari law that would have allowed girls as young as eight to marry. Unions fight sectarianism, with the Iraqi oil union network bringing together workers in Sunni, Shia and Kurdish regions to defend public ownership of the country’s energy reserves.
Another encouraging sign was the level of women’s participation and evidence of powerful women leaders emerging across the region. Reporting from the MENA women’s network meeting that concluded the previous day, women expressed their determination to achieve gender equality and access to decision-making power.
Assistant general secretary Kemal Özkan and Ahmed Kemal reported on progress made in the region, praising the concrete examples of work done as part of the building union power programme to organize and retain members, strengthen networks and use international instruments in national union strategies. The participants agreed that IndustriALL’s work in the region contributes to boosting women and youth, and to society generally.
The conference welcomed union representatives from France, Italy, Spain and Norway to develop solidarity between the two sides of the Mediterranean. Union leaders from MENA and Europe committed to cooperating, particularly in strengthening the coordination of regional company networks with European Works Councils, global framework agreements and other instruments towards establishing genuine social dialogue.
As the meeting closed, delegates sang Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife’s “Walking Tall”:
“I'm walking tall
I'm walking with my head held high!”
- Pictures from the conference are available here.