Four international trade union federations wrote to the International Labor Organization (ILO) on February 11, Tuesday, calling for its urgent intervention in Algeria to secure the release of arrested trade unionists and to stop the state persecution of union activities.
Independent trade union activities in the country have, for all practical purposes, been criminalized by the state which is under increasing pressure to enact democratic reforms by mass movements. Unions have played a key role in this process.
“Despite the popular uprising and the removal from power of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the current leader of the country, Abdel Majid Tebboune, is continuing the repression,” Public Services International (PSI) said in a statement on Tuesday.
Employees are allegedly being targeted with dismissals from their workplaces for taking membership in unions identified to have supported the pro-democracy movement. Their leaders are being arrested and charged with treason and foreign collaboration.
Along with the PSI, the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and IndustriALL have written a joint letter to the ILO.
IndustriALL said in its statement on February 11, “Trade unionists face a two-pronged attack: they are repressed for exercising the right to freedom of association set out in ILO Conventions, and persecuted for their participation in the mass democracy movement – the Hirak – which has continued since February last year.”
One such persecuted unionist is Raouf Mellal. He is the president of an independent union of workers in the public gas and electricity company called Sonalgaz, known by its French abbreviation SNATEG.
He had previously filed a complaint against the government at ILO. In retaliation, the minister of labor, employment and social security filed defamation charges against him. Last November, a court sentenced him to six months of imprisonment and financial penalties.
He is also the president of PSI-affiliated Trade Union Confederation of Productive Forces (COSYFOP) which used to share its office space with SNATEG at the el-Herrache Commune in the capital city, Algiers.
On February 5, the police surrounded the office, took down the posters of COSYFOP and arrested the members. “The confederation has been officially informed of the prohibition of any kind of meeting inside their office, which has been sealed off by the military,” PSI said in a statement on Tuesday.
Other trade unionists affiliated with COSYFOP have also been systematically targeted. One of them is Hamza Kherroubi, who heads a union of nurses’ assistants. Arrested in December “for his civic engagement and support for the democracy movement”, he was “charged with ‘incitement’ and sentenced to a year in prison. Provisionally released due to his medical condition, he was again placed in police detention on January 21,” reads the letter to the ILO by the four trade union federations.
On December 10, the International Human Rights Day, Kaddour Chouicha, the president of a union of workers in the higher education sector known by its French abbreviation SESS, was sentenced to one-year imprisonment for being vocal in his criticism of military and civil authorities ruling the country.
He was detained the previous day when he went to the police station to collect his cellphone which had been seized during a previous demonstration. After a month in prison, he was released, only to be rearrested again on January 14 and released the following day again. Later this month, a court will be reviewing the charges against him.
Both SESS and SNATEG are part of the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC)-affiliated Independent General Confederation of Workers in Algeria (CGATA). Chouicha is one of the executive committee members of this confederation.
“For many consecutive years,” the letter reads, “the ILO has been urging the government of Algeria to register the independent trade union confederation CGATA. On December 4, police sealed the Algiers office of CGATA, ostensibly for carrying out ’unauthorized activities’, according to the administrative order.”
The office space of CGATA headquarters is also shared by the PSI-affiliated National Autonomous Union of Public Administration Staff (SNAPAP).
The ILO had been informed about the situation in Algeria by the unions in a letter on October 4. After the ILO’s High Level Mission to Algeria, the Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) made several recommendations to the Algerian state to ensure that union rights are respected.
However, “the situation has continued to deteriorate as the government systematically harasses, imprisons and threatens independent trade union leaders and members.. Independent trade unions cannot carry out their functions without victimization and harsh reprisals,” reads the letter.
“Urgent intervention by the ILO is needed to ensure the physical safety and well-being of independent trade unionists”, the federations wrote to the ILO. They called on its director general, Guy Ryder, to immediately intervene and press the Algerian state to ensure “the unconditional release of all those arrested for attempting to exercise their trade union and civic rights and provide guarantees of their safety”.
Unions have also demanded that the closure of offices be immediately rescinded and surveillance of trade union activities be stopped.