ITUC OnLine – March 8, 2011

Spotlight on Salman Jaffar Al Mahfoodh (GFBTU – Bahrain)  – “We want real democracy that will benefit the whole population”

Brussels, 8 March 2011 (ITUC OnLine): The Kingdom of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s neighbour, is in the throes of an unprecedented popular revolt, begun by the country’s youth on 14 February.  Following violent repression by the authorities which left seven people dead (*) the opposition has called for the resignation of the government and the establishment of a genuinely democratic parliamentary monarchy.  Salman Jaffar Al Mahfoodh, General Secretary of the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions (GFBTU), looks back at the long-criticised political and socio-economic causes of the revolt. He talks about the political and practical involvement of the Bahraini trade union in this struggle for democracy, and trade union rights, and expresses his hopes for free trade unionism throughout the Arab world. 

What are the key factors behind the outbreak of this sudden revolution?

The explanation is both political and socio-economic.  The two factors are closely linked and have been the focus of long-standing demands.  On the one hand, there is the lack of political freedom, with a regime where the government is not elected and the constitution does not grant full rights of political association to parties.   On the other, we have a socio-economic situation where we have unacceptable levels of poverty and unemployment.  That is why we are not surprised at this widespread uprising.  There had already been small protest movements, demanding political reforms and the release of political prisoners.  Our trade union federation, the leaders of the opposition political parties and civil society had already urged the government to enter into dialogue many times, long before 14 February, to discuss political and socio-economic reform.  But the authorities did not understand the urgency of the situation and did not listen to these demands.

But why was 14 February chosen specifically as the date for mobilisation, the start of the revolution, organised notably by the young using Facebook ?

There are two reasons for this date, external and internal. Externally, of course, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the uprisings in other countries in the region were a powerful inspiration. Internally, the date is doubly symbolic. On 14 February 2001, the National Charter was ratified.  Everyone hoped it would bring more political freedom and usher in real democracy.  But ten years later, these promises have not been kept, there has been no improvement.  And 14 February 2002 was the date that the current Constitution, rejected by the entire opposition, came into effect, without consulting the people.

Why are the young playing such an important role in this uprising?

The young are the heart of the movement.  They have used Facebook and Twitter to mobilise as many people as possible to join the movement.  Despite extraordinarily bloody brutality, they were determined to keep going, to risk confrontation to reach the Lulu roundabout in the centre of Manama, now renamed Martyr’s Square.  The youth have even taken the initiative of approaching the leaders of the opposition parties to develop joint demands.  A lot of young workers are actively participating in the movement.

Were you surprised by the brutally of  the authorities’ repression?

We weren’t expecting such violence. The dawn attack on the demonstrators on 17 February by the army and security forces that left seven dead and many wounded was unimaginable.  They even stopped ambulances and medical staff from getting to the roundabout to evacuate the wounded.  Now we expect absolutely anything.

How did the GFBTU react when the uprising began?

We were in constant contact with the people on the ground from the outset.  We held an emergency meeting of our governing body and we published many statements calling on the government to listen to the peaceful demonstrators and release the political prisoners.  After the bloody attack on the demonstrators on 17 February, we announced a call on the morning of 19 February for a general strike on 20 February if the army and security forces did not withdraw immediately.  A few hours later the Crown Prince ordered the retreat of the army and the police.  But we had no guarantee that the military would not attack again and we maintained our strike call for the following day. As the situation remained calm, we suspended the strike on 21 February.  So far it remains suspended – but not called off.

Has the GFBTU taken any other concrete action, in addition to the mass participation of workers on an individual level in the demonstrations and the strike call?

As part of the civil society coalition, we have visited the wounded in hospital and we have also been to see the families of the martyrs to express our support.  We have a constant presence on Martyrs’ Square to talk to the young people there, to explain to them what role the Federation plays, and the ITUC and ILO, to support their movement.  We explain to them how a strike works, what the procedures are and the consequences, and also what civil disobedience consists of.  We are educating on the ground.
We have urged employers not to take any retaliatory measures against workers who have been absent from work because of the demonstrations.

We have also had meetings with important players such as the Chamber of Commerce which is being badly affected by the economic losses.  We talk to them about how to work together to reach our shared goal of economic prosperity.

How do you work with the opposition forces, politically?

We are part of the civil society coalition.  We also work in coordination with the opposition group, which is composed solely of the opposition parties.  Individually, we are also present within the national alliance.  We are involved on a daily basis in the discussions in all three bodies.

What are the opposition’s foremost demands today?

The government must resign.  Forty years with the same Prime Minister – we’ve had enough. We want real democracy, through constitutional reform and a system of elected government.  These demands are on the government’s table, the ball is in their court.

Is the religious divide between Sunnites and Shiites an important factor in this revolution?

We don’t agree with the way the international media present the situation.  This is a national, not a sectarian struggle. Constitutional reform and a regime based on independent elections will benefit the whole population, Shiites and Sunnites alike, and will make it possible to combat all forms of discrimination. 

How can the international trade union movement support this national struggle?

It can help put pressure on the government to listen to its people at last and open real dialogue to respond to their demands. It can also press the government to involve the GFBTU in the dialogue process in order to be able to defend workers’ demands, freedom of association and the introduction of a new labour code. These are all demands we have been making for years now.

We would like to thank the ITUC for the support it has given us since the beginning of the revolution, through its statements and its appeals to its affiliated organisations. We have also received support from the national trade union centres of Norway (LO) and the United States (AFL-CIO).  The Building workers’ international (BWI) supports us too.

The ILO, which has been in contact with us from the beginning, is also very important. Its Director, Juan Somavia, called me personally at the height of the repression to express his support for the Bahraini people and our organisation.

What effect do you think the popular movements for change sweeping across the Arab world will have on the Arabic trade union movement?

The people of all the Arab countries are suffering from the same problems of poverty, unemployment, corruption and tyrannical regimes.  I think that these revolutions are going to have a positive effect on the Arab trade union movement.  Many Arab trade unions are in the grip of their government’s power. I hope that these changes will contribute to the creation of a truly independent trade union movement and to progress for workers, for better wages, more jobs, better living conditions and real trade union rights, notably the right to strike – all the things that we want real democracy to bring for us here in Bahrain.

Migrant workers represent 77% of the workforce in Bahrain. Many of them are currently suffering the economic consequences of the situation.  Are they also involved in the opposition’s fight?

The GFBTU has been deeply involved in the defence of migrant workers rights for a long time now, in the same way that it defends all workers’ rights.  If we achieve our goals, it will be to the benefit of all workers, whatever their religious denomination or country of origin. We make no difference.

Interview by Natacha David

(*) out of a total population of 1.2 million, including 650.000 Bahrainis.

See pictures from Bahrain demonstrations.

“On the move to Equality” ITUC launches new Arab trade union women’s network

Tunis, 8 March 2011 (ITUC OnLine): The ITUC is marking International Women’s Day, 8 March, by launching a new  Arab trade union women’s network, in the presence of  its General Secretary Sharan Burrow, and with the participation of  trade union women from eight Arab countries.

“It is an honour for the ITUC to launch this new Arab women’s trade union network in Tunisia, a country whose courageous revolution and unprecedented transition to democracy has brought the hope of greater social justice and freedoms to the whole of the Arab world.  From Egypt, Yemen, Palestine, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia, the women trade unionists here today are testimony to the front line role of women in the revolutions and reformist movements sweeping the Arab world” stated Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary.

For the ITUC, the struggle for democracy goes hand in hand with the recognition of fundamental workers’ rights,  severely flouted in the Arab region, particularly for women.  The ITUC has long denounced the absence of real democracy and the violations of fundamental freedoms and trade union rights in the region, as well as the constantly deteriorating socio-economic conditions faced by the majority of workers.  The Arab region has the highest levels of gender inequality.  It has the world’s lowest rate of female participation in the labour market, at barely 25%.  The multiple forms of discrimination against women in the region mean that most are confined to precarious, low paid, unprotected jobs, either in the informal economy, the rapidly developing export processing zones, the services and care sectors, or agriculture.  Domestic workers, particularly in the Middle East, and above all the Gulf States, are subjected to unacceptable living and working conditions.  The majority of them suffer the additional discrimination that comes from being migrant workers, deprived of their most fundamental rights.

The ever increasing precariousness of the labour market and the steady deterioration of socio-economic conditions, combined with authoritarian polices that deprive the population of their fundamental freedoms,  have long been building up, the ITUC believes, to an explosive situation.   Last July at its Congress in Vancouver the ITUC therefore decided  that it was time to strengthen its structures in the Arab region and, at the same time, to launch a network for Arab women trade unionists.  The speed and historical significance of today’s democracy struggles in the region have only served to encourage the ITUC to further strengthen its support.  The creation of the new Arab trade union women’s network will be an essential tool  that will enable them, working together with other civil society organisations active in the same struggle, to develop strategies and concrete action for women’s rights, in law and in practice. 

Women are poorly represented within the Arab region’s trade union organisations, particularly at the decision-making level.  This new network,  “On the move to Equality” will also be a key tool in improving the role of women in the Arab trade union movement.

“The winds of change, for more democracy, rights, social justice and decent work, now  sweeping across the whole Arab region are an historic opportunity for women to win the equal standing that is their due in society, in the labour market and in their trade union organisations.  Arab women must be fully involved in this surge towards democracy, in the policies and structures, and the ITUC is committed to giving its full support to this fight for equality in the Arab region” concluded Sharan Burrow.

Read also the report, “Living With Economic Insecurity: Women in Precarious Work”. It shows that while the initial impact of the crisis was equally detrimental to men and women,  increasing numbers of women are now either losing their jobs or being forced into more precarious, temporary, and informal forms of work.

Spotlight on Abdallahi Ould Mohamed (CGTM – Mauritania) – “The young are mobilising in Mauritania too, and the unions are at their side, fighting for change”

Brussels, 8 March 2011 (ITUC OnLine): Encouraged by the revolutions in Tunisia, then Egypt, young Mauritanians have launched their own movement for change, called 25 February.  Three national trade union centres (CGTM, CNTM, CLTM*) that have persistently denounced the serious violations of workers’ rights, are encouraging the population to get out onto the streets and are determined to make the government finally face up to its responsibilities.   Abdallahi Ould Mohamed, known as Nahah, General Secretary of the General Confederation of Workers of Mauritania (CGTM), explains the causes they are fighting for,  and the hope for change that is driving the movement in his country, with one key date in their sights, the 11 March demonstration.

How would you describe the social situation in Mauritania today?

The current social situation in Mauritania is shaped by an unprecedented deterioration in living conditions for the people in general and workers in particular, due mainly to weak purchasing power, and repeated sharp rises in the price of basic commodities such as rice, sugar and oil.

Paradoxically, in face of this situation the government seems to take pleasure in systematically refusing to negotiate or hold dialogue with the trade union organisations, despite many requests.  The authorities are taking the ostrich approach:  they respond to every call for dialogue with a travesty of a meeting with a select few organisations loyal to the government, who are not even interested in the issues raised.  This situation further strengthens the discontent of workers who continue to suffer the effects of precarious employment, pitifully low wages, a lack of social protection, sub-contracting, the informal nature of employment relations and the decision to totally ignore the trade union organisations that genuinely represent the workers.

Despite the situation, the government is multiplying the number of contracts granted to multinationals that are pillaging the country’s mining wealth while the population languishes in poverty (between 46 and 52%) and youth unemployment (35 to 40%).

What has been the impact in your country of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and the uprisings in Libya and other Arab countries?

These movements are being closely followed in Mauritania where they have the admiration and sympathy of the population in general and the young in particular. They have begun to organise and demonstrate both in Nouakchott and in some parts of the interior, such as  Aioun, Fassala  and Néré, to demand the respect of democracy, better living conditions and even a change of political regime.  Now, a huge youth movement called 25 February has been created, bringing together all strands of thinking, and it is growing stronger at every demonstration.

Broadcast to a wide audience by the Al Jazeera television station, highly regarded in Mauritania, the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, etc.,  have sparked lively discussion and have given the Arab people renewed confidence in the possibility of changing their destiny through struggle, chasing out the despots and dictators that run our countries.    These sporadic movements are heading for a crescendo because the social networks are getting busier and busier.   The horror felt after the massacre of civilians in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, on an appalling scale, has driven the people to chose between two camps, the patriots and the dictators’ forces.  This will have a huge impact on the history of our countries.

What role are the Mauritanian trade union organisations playing in the present mobilisation for change?

The national trade union centres, namely the General Confederation of Workers of Mauritania (CGTM), the Free Confederation of Workers of Mauritania (CLTM) and the National Confederation of Workers of Mauritania (CNTM) have made a big contribution to the popular mobilisations for change by organising meetings and marches to Nouakchott, the capital, as well as to Nouadhibou, the financial capital, and to Zouerate, in the heart of the mineral region.

They are also planning to extend these mobilisations to the rest of the country by means of meetings and marches on 11 March 2011.  The three national centres have also had meetings with some civil society organisations that share their goals and their struggles.

How are the Mauritian authorities reacting?

The government is ill at ease faced with the size and determination of the social movements in the Maghreb and the Middle East, and it has prompted the Prime Minister to go on a media offensive, announcing measures such as the building of 100,000 social housing units.  The Minister for Oil has also announced a fall in fuel prices, but so far that hasn’t happened.

The leaders are also panicking because much of the funding for their development programmes depends on investments in Libya, but the uprisings taking place there have made the situation very uncertain.  It is public knowledge that Gaddafi played a significant role in the failure to return to constitutional order in Mauritania through his support of the military putsch of 6 August 2008.

On the other hand, the demonstrations organised by the young have not been repressed and even the public media have reported on them, further illustrating the authorities’ confusion over how to respond to the movement.

Finally, the government has opened shops supplying basic goods, but they only sell retail, meaning that people have to queue up for hours  for a few kilos, not even enough for their daily consumption.

What are the key demands addressed to the Mauritian government?

The youth movement has drawn up demands for fundamental political, economic and social reform.

The trade unions’ main demands are for higher wages, an increase in  the minimum wage, and the removal of the tax on pay and salaries. (ITS)

In terms of social security and health, we are demand higher pensions, a review of the way the National Sickness Insurance Fund works, an increase in family allowances and finally the creation of unemployment insurance.

We want to see labour legislation reformed at every level: The Labour Code, the Civil Service General Statute, general collective agreements, sectoral collective agreements, collective agreements for maritime workers, and new collective agreements.   We would also like to see a vocational training policy.

And our demands don’t stop there.  We are also calling for the establishment of social dialogue with the creation of a permanent consultation forum, the development of a social housing policy for workers,  the involvement of workers in the management of public enterprises, an end to the legislative codification of sub-contracting, a ban on hiring out labour and a review of employment policies.

Can you give us some recent examples of trade union rights violations?

I can give you several.

First, the orders given by a regional authority to the directors of secondary schools not to engage in labour relations with the national union of secondary school teachers affiliated to the CGTM.  Then there was the refusal by public and para-statal administrations to hold elections for staff representatives, the exclusion of the CGTM from Mauritania’s official delegation to the International Labour Conference in Geneva in June 2010, and the refusal by the public prosecutor’s office to receive documentation from trade unions and sectoral federations affiliated to the CGTM applying for registration, even though they continue to officially recognise national trade union centres. Then there is the absence of access by national trade union organisations to the national media and the mass dismissal of workers because of their membership of the CGTM.

What kind of solidarity are you looking for today from the international trade union movement?

We would like to see a continuation of the sort of work done by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to make the trade union situation and violations of trade union rights in Mauritania better known.

We hope that the implementation of the conclusions of the April 2010 Conference of Arab trade union organisations organised by the ITUC, and the role these organisations are now playing in  social mobilisation will lead to the institutional strengthening of Arab trade union organisation.

Finally, we hope to persuade the governments of the North to support the legitimate aspirations of the people that are  battling courageously against dictatorship and for the real democratisation of the Arab countries.

Interview by Anne-Catherine Greatti, with N.D.

* The General Confederation of Workers of Mauritania (CGTM),  the Free Confederation of Workers of Mauritania (CLTM) and the National Confederation of Workers of Mauritania (CNTM) are all affiliated to the ITUC

The ITUC represents 176 million workers in 301 affiliated national organisations from 151 countries and territories.

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