In Algeria, a dangerous crackdown on independent trade unions

For the past two decades, workers in Algeria have been fighting for the right to form trade unions independent of the government and the official trade union organization UGTA. And, for decades, the government has responded with systematic harassment and repression. A 2014 Human Rights Watch article, Algeria: Workers’ Rights Trampled, traces their struggle and sums it up in these words: “The government punishes peaceful protesters and strikers, including with retaliatory suspensions or dismissals from public service jobs, and arbitrarily arrests and prosecutes union activists on politically motivated charges.”

Trade union militants now face a double-barreled repression. They are targeted as trade unionists challenging the monopoly of the UGTA, and under attack for their role in driving and sustaining the ongoing democracy movement, the magnificent Hirak which erupted in February last year.

The Hirak dislodged Bouteflika, but could not shake the structure of power, at the heart of which is the military. The street could not prevent the December 12 electoral farce which millions of Algerians understandably view as thoroughly illegitimate. Behind the façade of an election in which citizens were asked to select one of five presidential candidates approved by the military, the crackdown on civic activists, including trade unionists, has intensified.

Human Rights Watch, in the 2014 article, called on the International Labour Organization (ILO) to “urge Algeria to end its repression of independent union activity.” In response to complaints filed with the ILO, with the support of international trade union organizations. The ILO has done just that. The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association and its Committee of Experts on the Application of Standards have systematically urged the government to register the independent unions, reinstate dismissed trade unionists to their jobs and allow the independent organizations to function free of harassment and victimization. The government response has been more of the same.

Raouf Mellal, president of the independent union of workers in the public gas and electricity company SONELGAZ as well as the national confederation COSYFOP, continues to face new punitive charges, most recently a defamation lawsuit filed against him by the then Minister of Labour in retaliation for …complaints against the government at the ILO. Mellal’s persecution, which began in 2017 when he exposed a financial scandal at SONELGAZ, has intensified with COSYFOP’s engagement in the Hirak and successful calls for strikes in March and again in December last year. On February 5, police sealed the COSYFOP headquarters in Algiers.

Mellal has now been convicted and sentenced in absentia dozens of times, including another defamation lawsuit stemming from his union’s defense of a victim of sexual harassment. He faces cumulative penalties of years in prison and punitive fines.

Kaddour Chouicha, president of the independent union of higher education workers SESS, member of the executive committee of CGATA and representative on the governing body of the ITUC, was arrested and immediately sentenced to one year’s imprisonment on December 10 – International Human Rights Day – for criticizing the military and civil authorities. Provisionally released after one month, he was rearrested on January 14. Chouicha is vice-president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights and president of its Oran section.

Union militant Ibrahim Daouadji was arrested on October 12 on similar charges and remains in prison. He was arrested together with his 3-year-old son, who was only released after lawyers intervened.

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