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A question of dignity: a dark year for Algerian unions

17 October, 2017Algerian trade union leader, Raouf Mellal, is facing six months in prison for whistleblowing at one the country’s biggest enterprises Sonelgaz, while his union is courageously fighting a sustained attack on its members at the state-owned energy company.

It was just before midnight when union leader, Raouf Mellal, heard banging on the door of his hotel room in the Algerian city of Tizi-Ouzo. It was the police. They demanded that he get dressed and come down to the local police station immediately. They had no arrest warrant and no legal right to seize him but it would have been pointless to resist.

Mellal is President of the independent national union of electricity and gas workers, (Syndicat National des Travailleurs de l’Électricité et du Gaz, SNATEGS). He was not the only one to be seized on the night of 20/21 March 2017. Nine other colleagues, including five members of the union’s leadership committee staying at the hotel, were also taken into custody.

Down at the police station they were grilled about their union activities. Mellal was repeatedly told he was not a legitimate union leader, even though he had been elected in July 2016. They weren’t released until 2pm later that afternoon.

Mellal and the SNATEGS leadership had travelled to Tizi-Ouzo on the eve of a planned march in the city, part of the actions for a three day national strike against the state owned energy provider Sonelgaz. Workers were fed up with low pay, bad management and lethal working conditions at the company.

Over the course of the next three days from 21 to 23 March 2017, the police went to extraordinary measures to stop a series of sit-ins and rallies across the country. While the march at Tizi-Ouzu was prevented by blockades and the arrest of the union leaders, police attacked peaceful protestors including women at a sit-in at Sonelgaz’s distribution centre in Bejaia the next day. On the third day of the strike, police arrested some 400 trade unionists who attempted to protest outside the Sonelgaz headquarters in Algiers.

Despite the violence and intimidation, SNATEGS recorded a spike in union subscriptions and thousands of workers took part in the strike.

Propping up the Algerian economy

Sonelgaz is the second largest enterprise in Algeria, employing more than 87,000 workers. It provides gas and electricity to the nation and for export across Africa and Europe. Its contribution to the Algerian economy, which is heavily dependent on oil and gas, is immense. However, as the government grapples with an economic slump due to the global drop in oil and gas prices, attacks on democratic unions in Algeria have increased. SNATEGS, as the only independent union representing workers at Sonelgaz, has faced some of the worst oppression by authorities.

“Sonelgaz is the sole provider of gas and electricity in Algeria. It is a vital sector but workers’ basic salary is only 200 euros a month. In contrast, the basic salary in Morocco is 600 euros, even though Algeria exports electricity to Morocco and is the main provider of energy in North Africa,” says Mellal.

SNATEGS, which was registered in 2013, has succeeded in rapidly boosting membership to more than 35,000 workers, the large majority of whom are under 35 years old. Its president, at age 37, is one of the youngest union leaders in the Arab world. But his success as a union leader has had a heavy toll.

“As president of our union I am suffering. I am totally repressed. My career is destroyed. I lost my job three years ago,” Mellal recalls. He began working in the legal department at Sonelgaz in 2013. Just a year later he was fired for his union activities but worse was to come.

Sentenced for whistleblowing

In December 2016, Mellal was sentenced in absentia to six months in prison and a fine of 50,000 Algerian Dinars (US$455), after being accused of illegally obtaining documents. These documents, which were freely available online, exposed the illicit inflation of electricity bills by Sonelgaz over a ten-year period affecting eight million households.

Mellal has already lost an appeal against his sentence, and will be allowed one final chance to clear his name before his freedom is denied. Mellal also faces a further 27 charges, which include defamation against Sonelgaz.

Furthermore, Mellal says the government is trying to take away his right to work as a lawyer. He is now facing a disciplinary hearing from the bar association in Algeria, which could mean he loses his license to practice.

Exposing the corruption at Sonelgaz has cost Mellal his job, his career, and his security. Intimidation from the authorities has been so great that Mellal has been forced to move house, and so have his parents. But while Mellal is facing prison, no one has been held responsible at the company.

“Absolutely nothing has been done to hold people to account at Sonelgaz,” says Mellal. “The corruption has been completely ignored, even by the public. In the meantime, Sonelgaz has rectified the overcharging of customers but there has been no investigation or enquiry, neither on the part of the Ministry of Energy nor even from the judicial authorities.”

Deadly working conditions

The lengthy and deliberate overcharging at Sonelgaz was particularly unjust as it targeted the poorest in society, leaving big business and industry untouched.

However, Sonelgaz’s contempt for its customers is nothing compared to its disregard for the welfare of its workers.  The company has an alarming track record in health and safety, which sees electricity line workers being killed at the rate of three a month, according to the union.

“There are not even minimum levels of safety at the workplace. We work without safety protection; we risk death. In July seven workers died on the job. And those are the fatalities we know about. But the company always tries to blame the workers even though it provides inadequate safety provisions and faulty equipment. The situation is very serious and the workers are angry,” says Mellal.

In May this year, the Minister of Labour withdrew SNATEGS’ registration just days before a nationwide strike by Sonelgaz workers. In a letter dated 16 May, the Minister said the union had disrespected the Algerian law 90-14/1990 without detailing how. It also said Mellal had been dismissed from his role as union president.

However, the very act of deregistering the union flies in the face of the same law, which demands that the decision to suspend or dissolve a trade union cannot be authorized without proper judicial process. The government’s actions are also in violation of ILO Conventions 87 and 98, which were ratified by Algeria in 1962.

Mass dismissals

As well as Mellal, Sonelgaz also fired SNATEGS’ ex-president, former general secretary and a further 46 people representing virtually the entire SNATEGS national and regional leadership. A total of twelve workers have been charged with criminal offences, while more than 900 workers are facing civil charges from Sonelgaz after they went on strike.

“Now it is a question of dignity… We are determined to do whatever it takes to get our dignity back,” says Mellal.

In June this year, Mellal joined a group of trade unionists from Algeria to attend the International Labour Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, where Algeria was under examination by the Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) for breaching ILO Convention 87 on freedom of association.

A dark year for unions

In what has been described as a ‘dark year’ for unions, the Algerian authorities have declared strikes illegal, prevented union branches from meeting, fired numerous union leaders, and physically harassed union members. 

“The government crackdown is getting worse and they are turning to aggression to hold onto power. We are in a crisis situation which could erupt at any moment,” warned Rachid Malaoui, President of trade union confederation, Confedération Générale Autonome des Travailleurs en Algérie (CGATA), at a press conference in Geneva in June.

Algeria’s ailing, 80-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has led the country since 1999. In 2014 he was voted in for a fourth term despite rarely appearing in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. Bouteflika, who still earns respect for his role in bringing peace following Algeria’s brutal civil war during the 1990s, is propped up by an economic, political and military elite known as le pouvoir – the power.  Respect for freedom of association and trade union rights is minimal. But, Mellal observes, “Every time we write a letter to the ILO, Algeria ranks up its charm offensive”.

International Labour Conference

IndustriALL spoke up in defense of SNATEGS at the CAS in Geneva, calling for the government to stop oppressing the union and demanding that all its union leaders and members sacked for their union activities to be reinstated.

Among its draft conclusions, the CAS asked for a direct contact mission to Algeria and called on the government to ensure that freedom of association can be exercised in a climate free of intimidation and without violence against workers trade unions or employers. The CAS also urged the Algerian government to reinstate government employees fired on the basis of anti-union discrimination.

Despite the dismissals, despite the harassment and despite the court cases, SNATEGS members refuse to be cowed. On 20 July 2017, around a thousand protestors gathered from across the country in the Mediterranean port of Bejaia for a March of Shame against Sonelgaz.

They were met by some 5,000 police officers who arrested more than 600 union members and citizens in a strategy to prevent the right to peaceful assembly. Bejaia was effectively cut off by police barricades and more than 50 vehicles and anti-riot trucks. The union called off the march advising its members to comply with the security forces and avoid any clashes or disturbances that could harm public safety. “We are a responsible and peaceful organization and we do not want to put our members at risk,” says Mellal.

In its latest statement on 11 August, SNATEGS says its union representatives have been forced to apologize in front of a Sonelgaz disciplinary committee and renounce their affiliation to SNATEGS. Those that succumbed were demoted two levels and lost their bonuses. The union reps that refused to apologize have been sacked. 

The battle for Sonelgaz workers goes on but with backing of the authorities and the judiciary, the company has the upper hand. “Sonelgaz takes advantage of the poor economic situation in the country. If workers complain, they’re told they can leave and that there are plenty of people who want their job. Thousands have been fired abusively,” says Mellal.

International solidarity support and pressure from global unions such as IndustriALL, ITUC, IUF and PSI has been crucial in keeping their cause alive, says Mellal: “It is an enormous help to us and gives us the motivation to carry on the fight. The Algerian authorities have to know that the world is watching.”