The Trade Union Movement in Algeria Began Two Decades Ago: Interview with Elias Mrabet

Following the stabilization of Algerian politics post-2020, trade unions came under intense scrutiny to evaluate their past actions. Advocates lauded the achievements of trade unions, while critics highlighted their shortcomings and perceived alignment with government mandates, with some even considering many unions as mere extensions of the government, lacking any genuine autonomy. Meanwhile, others conducted a thorough analysis of both the successes and failures of these unions, emphasizing the need to review the legislation that regulates their activities. Against the backdrop of the popular uprisings of 2019 and the introduction in 2023 of new laws governing union activities in Algeria, there is a pressing need to reassess the role and impact of unions in the country.

To shed light on these issues, Fatiha Zamamouche, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative, spoke to Dr Elias Mrabet, President of the National Union of Public Health Professionals – an independent union established in May 1991. Mrabet is a general practitioner with extensive experience in union advocacy. Over the years, he has been a kye figure in advocating for the rights of health professionals, pushing for basic law to regulate the health sector, and addressing compensation systems across the various medical corps. Mrabet has been consistently urging the government to initiate discussions with union representatives, emphasizing their pivotal role as a bridge between the state and its citizens.

1- How did independent unions influence the amendment of the 2020 Constitution, and what key principles underpinned these contributions?

We weren’t formally invited to contribute to the development of the 2020 Constitution, but that didn’t stop us from submitting our proposals. Despite the lack of an official invitation, we reviewed the draft, analyzed its provisions, and discussed particularly the sections related to union rights, demands, and the right to strike.

2- Considering you weren’t directly involved in the constitution-drafting process, how do you envision your relationship with the political leadership, particularly post-2019?

Elias Mrabet (E.M) Discussing the government’s relationship with unions essentially reflects our current reality. In this setting, the dynamics between us haven’t evolved. While official political rhetoric occasionally offers reassurances, suggesting that the Algerian government respects political diversity and union rights, there remains an undeniable tension in our relationship. This tension can ebb and flow, causing confusion and disruption. The lack of genuine national and social dialogue is evident. The government has consistently denied large, independent unions, especially those representing workers in health and education, the opportunity to engage in traditional tripartite discussion meetings. These meetings, involving the government, employers, and the General Union of Algerian Workers, were annual events from the 1990s until their last occurrence in 2018 and were seen as a platform for direct discussions on labor and social issues.

This exclusion exacerbates the social dialogue crisis within various ministries. While some ministries, like the Ministry of Health, have the authority to engage in dialogues, these conversations can be hindered by ongoing crises, such as the global health challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

3- Were you involved in drafting the law on union rights, and did the government proactively seek your input?

E.M: Sadly, the government hasn’t prioritized opening a dialogue with union representatives. It continues to overlook the contributions and proposals of union bodies. The government seems indifferent to union feedback before discussing draft laws at the ministerial level or forwarding them to the House of Representatives for ratification. This disregard for the unions persists despite the unions’ efforts to amend Law No. 90-14 of 2 June 1990, concerning union rights, and despite the content of international treaties from the International Labor Office. This neglect was especially evident in amendments to the 1990 law and the enactment of Law No. 22-06 from 25 April 2022.

4- Did the unions submit any proposals for the law, even if you weren’t directly involved in presenting them before its release? And what do you see as key to warrant freedoms and union actions?

E.M: Regrettably, the government didn’t initiate genuine consultations with independent unions. Despite our official submissions of draft laws and proposals to both the Ministry of Labor and the relevant parliamentary committee, they were largely ignored. When it comes to the government’s proposed laws, especially those concerning union practices, resolving collective disputes, and the right to strike, they are fundamentally at odds with their constitutional objectives. This is evident when compared to the outward-facing political rhetoric. The question arises: How can a government, that professes respect for freedoms, including union rights, essentially hollow out the Constitution of right to exercise these proclaimed freedoms?

To be more explicit, the laws are in blatant conflict with the agreement of the International Labor Organization, notably Conventions 87 and 98. In essence, the proposed draft laws seem to be meant primarily to silence union voices, hinder genuine union activities, and curtail the right to strike in various sectors.

5- The government has expressed concerns about the blending of union activities with political actions. What’s your take on introducing laws to distinguish between the two?

E.M: First and foremost, I want to stress the importance of recognizing the legitimacy of distinguishing between political and trade union activities. It’s crucial to clarify and set the boundaries between the two, referencing the 2020 Constitution’s articles and the clauses in international treaties and agreements ratified by Algeria. These guidelines don’t prohibit the merging of both activities. We see an intersection in the roles of unions and political parties, and we believe the balance between the two should be determined by regulatory bodies and union rules, free from external influence or pressure.

It’s also worth noting the stance of independent unions that formed the “Confederation of Algerian Trade Unions”. They’ve chosen not to engage in discussions or contribute to draft laws, especially when some of their representatives were excluded by the parliamentary committee in charge of drafting the legislation. They wrote to the President of the Republic, voicing their concerns about this exclusion and calling for the drafts to be re-evaluated.

6- How would you evaluate union activities over the past decade, especially their role in social protests leading up to the 2019 popular movement?

E.M: To answer your question, let me first contextualize the protests Algeria experienced before the 2019 movement. These protests were primarily driven by deteriorating living standards, diminished purchasing power, and the curtailment of certain benefits for workers, particularly in the public sector. This was compounded by the government’s sidelining of unions from consultation and dialogue processes. A case in point is the absence of union input on matters such as the retirement issue and the June 2016 tripartite decision – comprising the government, employers, and the General Union of Algerian Workers – which eliminated the rights to proportional retirement and age-independent retirement. These decisions galvanized numerous unions across sectors, uniting them in collective advocacy.

This unity led the unions to present consolidated demands, bolstered by specific social movements, particularly strikes and rallies. These protest actions garnered national attention, even amidst government efforts to suppress, deter, and muzzle union voices.

However, it’s crucial to differentiate between the motives of the trade union movement and the 2019 popular Hirak. The union movement is both historical and contemporary. In contrast, the 2019 Hirak was unprecedented in its intensity and momentum. The trade union movement’s roots go back to 2001-2002, following a period of stability and recovery after the social, economic, and political turmoil of the 1990s marked by terrorism.

In their commitment to improving living conditions, independent unions played a crucial role, distinguishing themselves from certain regime-aligned unions that adopted a more passive stance, endorsing and rationalizing government policies. This alignment resulted in tensions between independent unions and the government, notwithstanding the unions’ robust representation and organizational structures across various sectors.

Government restrictions on trade unions were met with unprecedented resistance by independent unions. This ensured trade unions’ persistence at the grassroots level and bolstered their visibility through media appearances across multiple outlets. This approach transformed them into a potent force, pressuring the government, rallying the masses, and establishing a mobilization equilibrium via organizational influence.

7- How did trade and professional unions influence issues related to freedom and democracy before 2019? And what were their political involvements?

E.M: Independent unions played several pivotal roles, including championing an independent and diverse union landscape, advocating for the amendment of Law 90-14 and the establishment of labor federations and confederations in 2022, and raising public awareness about rights and freedoms, both within and outside of labor and professional sectors, fostering genuine freedom of expression and effecting changes in certain social and economic areas using protests as leverage.

Advocating for specific demands is at the core of union activities and has a legal foundation, and it is what sets it apart from demands by political parties. In addition, these unions maintain their autonomy from political parties. It’s worth noting that independent unions consist of members with various political and ideological backgrounds, and yet, they uphold the union’s unique identity, ensure solidarity within its structure, and focus on workers’ demands.

8- What contributions did labor unions make during the popular movement on the ground?

E.M: Since the onset of the 2019 popular movement in Algeria, independent unions have been staunch supporters. Their commitment was evident in their official endorsement during the meeting on 28 February 2019. This meeting gave birth to a statement backing the movement, during which unions decided to prioritize national demands over professional and social ones.

Politically, these unions openly questioned the legitimacy of the head of state and the government. They advocated for a boycott of activities tied to government representatives in specific sectors and ministries. Through the Confederation, they championed strikes in major sectors, including education, health, and higher education. They also proposed solutions to the crisis by presenting drafts of potential roadmaps for discussions with significant actors in the popular movement. This spirit of collaboration was evident in events such as the civil society meeting on 15 June 2019, the “Ain al-Bunyan” gathering on 6 July 2019, and follow-up meetings at SAFEX (The Algerian Company of Fairs and Exhibitions) that brought together civil society, unions, and political parties. I was a representative of the Algerian Confederation of Independent Trade Unions during these gatherings and facilitated discussions to bridge divides and help collaboration between groups like the Forces of the Democratic Alternative and main political figures to ensure the success of the popular movement.

Moreover, the involvement of independent trade unions was instrumental in organizing the National Dialogue Forum. From this forum, a national dialogue committee emerged, drawing members from various parties and prominent figures. Although the Algerian Confederation of Trade Unions chose not to partake in the “Ain al-Bunyan” meeting, our contributions cannot be overlooked. A testament to our role was the significant gathering on 24 August 2019, which we organized. This assembly, attended by leading national organizations, political entities, and influential figures, paved the way to announcing the date of the presidential election.

9- Considering the political union dynamics before and after the Hirak, what role did women unionists play?

E.M: Women’s involvement in union leadership roles, especially at higher echelons, continues to be limited, despite their presence as a significant workforce in many sectors. Although we’ve seen a rise in women’s participation in areas like health and education in recent years, this has not translated into a more prominent role in union activities, a trend that reflects the political scene. This “subdued presence” stems from societal norms that often place boundaries on women’s roles and from the challenges faced by female union delegates, such as administrative hurdles and legal scrutiny. Such challenges sometimes dissuade families from supporting women in taking on union responsibilities.

The union work and union leaders have also suffered from misrepresentations, which damaged their reputations and further deterred women from leadership positions. However, these obstacles should not prevent us from advocating for women’s meaningful representation in both politics and unions. We believe in women’s capacity to excel in leadership roles across all sectors. True union ethos supports and defends all professional groups as well as rejects any biased norms that have been prevalent in political and organizational endeavors.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.