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Algeria: 5,000 police used to stop energy workers’ march

25 July, 2017Some 5,000 police officers in Algeria were deployed to stop a rally in the city of Bejaia on 20 July, arresting more than 600 union members and citizens in the process.

Hundreds of trade unionists from IndustriALL Global Union’s electricity and gas affiliate, SNATEGS, had gathered in the Mediterranean port for the March of Shame against state energy company Sonelgaz.

However, they were met by an extreme and unwarranted police operation. Bejaia was effectively closed off by police barricades and more than 50 vehicles and anti-riot trucks blocked access to the city.

SNATEGS President, Raouf Mellal, was one of the hundreds of people arbitrarily arrested in a strategy to prevent the trade unionists’ right to peaceful assembly.

In light of the extraordinary police provocation and not wishing to endanger its members, SNATEGS called off the march advising its members to comply with the security forces and avoid any clashes or disturbances that could harm public safety. SNATEGS said it issued the advice in order to safeguard its image as a responsible and peaceful organization.

“We deplore the excessive behaviour on the part of the security forces, which aims to hide our actions and prevent the world from seeing the true extent of our support and strength as workers' representativeness in the SONELGAZ group,” said SNATEGS in a statement on 24 July.

SNATEGS members had travelled from across the country to take part in the march, which follows a series of well-supported strikes demanding better wages and improvements in health and safety at Sonelgaz. However, in retaliation to the mobilizations this year, 92 SNATEGS members have been fired, 29 workers have been charged with criminal offences, while more than 900 workers are facing civil charges for going on strike.

Furthermore, the government deregistered SNATEGS on 16 May, breaking not only Algerian law but also ILO Conventions.

The trade union oppression of SNATEGS and its members, the only independent union at Sonelgaz representing some 35,000 workers at the company, follows the ongoing persecution of its President Raouf Mellal.

Mellal was sentenced in absentia on 16 December 2016 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 customers.

Mellal has already lost one appeal against his sentence and will be allowed one final chance to clear his name in the courts.

IndustriALL has again written to Algeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations to condemn the anti-union oppression of SNATEGS and its leaders, demanding that the country comply with ILO conventions on freedom of association and assembly, and that it reinstates all the union members who have been sacked for their union affiliations.

Attacks on trade unions in Algeria are intensifying and the country was examined by the Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) at the International Labour Conference in June for failure to comply with the ILO Convention 87 on freedom of association. IndustriALL gave testimony to the CAS on behalf of SNATEGS.

In its draft conclusions published on 15 June, the CAS called upon the Government of Algeria to:

  • ensure that the registration of trade unions in law and in practice conforms with Convention No. 87;
  • ensure that freedom of association can be exercised in a climate free of intimidation and without violence against workers, trade unions or employers;
  • reinstate employees of the Government, terminated based on anti-union discrimination.

Sonelgaz employs 86,000 people and is the country’s second largest enterprise.