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Algeria: Crackdown on free unions taken to the ILO

15 June, 2017Trade unionists from Algeria have been in Geneva, Switzerland, for the International Labour Conference (ILC) to appeal to the ILO to help stop the growing repression against independent unions in the country. 

As the economic situation in Algeria worsens due to the drop in global oil prices, the government is using increasingly aggressive tactics to hold onto power, according to Rachid Malaoui, President of CGATA (Confédération générale autonome des travailleurs en Algérie). “We are in a crisis situation which could erupt at any moment,” said Malaoui at a press conference in Geneva on Tuesday 13 June.

During this year’s ILC, Algeria has been under examination by the Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) for breaching ILO Convention 87 on freedom of association.

In what has been described as a ‘dark year’ for unions, the Algerian authorities are declaring strikes illegal, preventing union branches from meeting, firing union leaders, and physically harassing union members.  

IndustriALL affiliate, SNATEGS, represents 35,000 workers at Sonelgaz, Algeria’s state-owned gas and electricity company. Sonelgaz employs 86,000 people and is the country’s second largest enterprise. SNATEGS president, Raouf Mellal, is contesting a six month prison sentence for blowing the whistle on corruption at Sonelgaz that illicitly inflated the electricity bills of more than eight million homeowners in Algeria for over ten years. 

Mellal has just one more chance to appeal his prison sentence and is facing a further 26 charges in the courts. He has been forced to change his address due to harassment from authorities, and so have his parents.

“As president of our union I am suffering. I am totally repressed. My career is destroyed. I lost my job three years ago,” said Mellal at the Geneva press conference.  “Now the government has even taken away my right to work as a lawyer. Why? Because I am president of an independent union.”

Since March 2017, SNATEGS has staged a series of well-supported strikes demanding better wages and improvements in health and safety, as fatalities at the company are frequent. As a consequence, 92 SNATEGS members have been fired, 12 are facing criminal charges, and more than 800 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.

“Now it is a question of dignity. We don’t feel human anymore. We aren’t workers anymore. If you want to keep your dignity, you have to be prepared to pay the price. We are determined to do whatever it takes to get our dignity back,” said Mellal, who at 37 years-old is one of the youngest union leaders in the Arab world.

“Sonelgaz is the only provider of gas and electricity in Algeria. It is a vital sector. The workers at Sonelgaz have a lot of power if they want to. Despite this, workers’ basic salary is 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.

“In addition, there are not even minimum levels of safety at the workplace. We work without safety protection; we risk death. Just the day before yesterday, a worker died on electricity lines. Sonelgaz said it was the worker’s fault but that’s not true. Sonelgaz does not provide adequate safety measures. They are responsible for the deaths of their workers. That’s why the workers are determined, despite the repression, despite the legal cases, despite the dismissals, to have a big rally in July that we are calling the march of shame.”

IndustriALL spoke up against the maltreatment of SNATEGS and its members when Algeria was discussed at the ILC on 12 June. Speaking afterwards, IndustriALL Assistant General Secretary, Kemal Özkan, said:

“IndustriALL Global Union will stand by our brothers and sisters at SNATEGS until there is justice. Their fight is our fight. We urge the authorities in Algeria to immediately drop the charges against Raouf Mellal, as well as hundreds of union members whose only crime was to exercise their legitimate right to strike. We also demand that the government immediately re-registers SNATEGS and ensures that sacked workers are reinstated.”

In draft conclusions published on 15 June, the Committee on the Application of Standards called upon the Government of Algeria, without delay, to:  

  • ensure that the registration of trade unions in law and in practice conforms with Convention No. 87;
  • process pending applications for the registration of trade unions which have met the requirements set out by law and notify the Committee of Experts of the results in this regard;
  • ensure that the new draft Labour Code is in compliance with Convention No. 87;
  • amend section 4 of Act. No. 90-14 in order to remove obstacles to the establishment by workers’ organizations, of federations, and confederations of their own choosing, irrespective of the sector to which they belong;
  • amend section 6 of Act No. 90-14 in order to recognize the right of all workers, without distinction on the basis of nationality, to establish trade unions;
  • 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.

The CAS also said the Government should accept an ILO direct contacts mission before the next International Labour Conference and report progress to the Committee of Experts before its November 2017 session.