Wave of Labour Protests Paralyzes Algeria
Declining oil and gas revenues, cuts in food and fuel subsidies, and soaring inflation continue to challenge Algerians as they struggle to cope with an economic crisis now entering its fourth year. With social tensions on the rise, labour demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins have massively increased in recent months, culminating on 14 February 2018 in a nationwide general strike in public schools and hospitals.
While protests remain muted in the private sector, independent unions and syndicates in the public sector are challenging the government’s economic and social policies and insisting on reform to the country’s labour laws and retirement regulations. Intersyndicale, which is composed of 14 independent unions and syndicates representing workers in the health, education, electricity and postal services, vowed to continue its actions in a statement published ahead of the general strike until their demands are met.
Leading the strikes in schools and hospitals are the Autonomous Medical Residents Collective (CAMRA), the National Autonomous Council of Teachers of the Ternary Education Sector (Cnapeste) and dozens of other independent trade unions, syndicates and activists as well as rights groups such as the Algerian League for Defending Human Rights.
On 24 January 2018, a court in Algiers ruled that an earlier strike by CAMRA’s was ‘illegal’ and called on the syndicate to return to the negotiating table. CAMRA insists that its actions comply with legal provisions and procedures. Yet despite the same court ruling against the National Union of Public Health Practitioners (SNPSP), which also called for a general strike, thousands of teachers and medical staff staged marches and sit-ins in several provinces on 14 February 2018. The government had taken precautions, deploying its security forces and riot police in the streets and squares of several cities, particularly the capital Algiers.
Meanwhile, those unions backing the general strike and sit-ins in front of governmental buildings denounced recent attacks on the freedom of association and the deteriorating spending power of workers. In a communiqué published on the same day as the marches and sit-ins, CAMRA described the repression of its members as ‘unjust, illegal and immoral’ and vowed to continue fighting for its ‘legitimate rights’.
Ahead of the general strike, numerous citizens and medical staff reported that they had been temporarily arrested or arbitrarily checked by security forces and plainclothes police officers in several provinces and cities. Protesting medical staff condemned the authorities for their ‘witch hunt’ against them and praised the success of the marches.
Two days earlier, trainee doctors had staged yet another protest in Algiers, where protests have effectively been banned since 2001. Despite the usual quick and repressive response by security forces, about a thousand people gathered in front of the main post office in an attempt to underline their ambitions for comprehensive reforms and wage increases. In early January, a protest by doctors in central Algiers was violently dispersed. After the crackdown, pictures and videos of bleeding and severely injured protesters went viral on social media, fuelling public anger over the government’s harsh response to their demands.
Medical staff having been protesting weekly since November 2017 but intensified their actions after the events in January 2018. CAMRA and other medical syndicates declared they would only guarantee minimal services and said that the strike would continue until their demands were met. Besides the right to staff housing and family reunions when deployed in remote areas, doctors are insisting on the repeal of the controversial public service, a one- to four-year, low-paid and obligatory placement, as well as military service which is compulsory for male doctors.
The government has so far rejected these demands, highlighting a key problem in the country’s health sector: inadequate equipment and supplies as well as a lack of housing and transportation. The issue of housing is particularly important for the unions as the majority of medical staff in the country is women, who face severe difficulties in finding flats as landlords often refuse to rent to single women.
Also widely affected by the wave of strikes and protests are schools, as Cnapeste and other independent unions in the education sector are likewise insisting on their demands being met. However, their ongoing actions have been met with counter protests in several cities by parents who are concerned that their children will be forced to repeat the whole school year and accuse the unions of penalizing pupils for the sake of their cause.
Education Minister Nouria Benghabrit affirmed that 581 teachers involved in the strike have been sacked while her ministry is currently preparing further admonishments for teachers who “abandoned their posts”, according to the Algerian news agency APS. Benghabrit noted that strikes are a constitutional right but stressed that ‘unlimited’ strikes should be a last resort and therefore ceased immediately.
Meanwhile, the turnout for the general strike was low in western Algeria. The francophone newspaper el-Watan pointed out that numerous unions and syndicates compete in this sector and the state-controlled General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA) remains particularly strong in primary schools. Therefore, figures provided by Cnapeste suggest a high participation in secondary schools against a low turnout in primary schools during the strike.
In addition to the unrest in the health and education sectors, flight attendants of the state-owned national airline Air Algérie staged a surprising strike in late January 2018, which left local and international flights paralyzed for days. Their demands for reform to the wage scale were met with condemnation by company and government officials. Air Algérie imposed disciplinary measures against at least seven workers. After a court once again declared the strike illegal, the National Syndicate of Algerian Flight Attendants suspended the strike but staged another in solidarity with their disciplined colleagues only four days later.
Meanwhile, the political parties FLN, RND, TAJ and MPA as well as numerous independent MPs urged the government to stand firm and not give in to the syndicate’s demands. The four parties called on the unions and workers affiliated with them to end their strikes immediately and return to work for the sake of students and the sick, TSA Algérie reported.
Two days after the general strike, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said that he will not tolerate “the persistence of this anarchy” and promised to put an end to it. He described demands by trainee doctors as “illogical” and strongly condemned the strike, according to the Algérie1 news website. Despite his threats and ongoing state repression against protesters, Cnapeste announced on 16 February 2018 its intention to continue its actions.