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Hunger strikers risk their lives to try to break deadlock

15 June 2012
Forty days into their protest, nine Algerian justice workers are still waiting for the government to acknowledge their demands. Giuliana Sgrena reports. Hour by hour, day by day, the condition of the nine justice workers (six women and three men) on hunger strike in Algeria continues to deteriorate. The hunger strike, which began on 6 May, is taking place in the capital, Algiers, near the offices of the Algerian National Independent Union of Public Administration Workers (SNAPAP), to which the workers belong.

‘The hunger strikers are all in a state of great physical hardship,’ says Nassira Ghozlane, the union’s general secretary. ‘They are suffering muscular pain, headaches, fatigue and low blood sugar. They have difficulty walking, and have lost 10 per cent of their body weight. They have been hospitalized in Rouiba several times. Leila Aberkane lost consciousness and had to be revived at Mustapha hospital. And Nadia Derouiche, Zahia Boutaoui and Fawzia Bouziani are all in a very precarious physical condition.’ The other participants are Rabia Menaa, Mourad Ghedia, Saad Bourebkba, Azziza Haddadi and Beldjani Djemai.

SNAPAP has denounced the government’s indifference to the hunger strike, as well as the difficulties faced by hospital doctors, who, according to Nassira Ghozlane, ‘are not free to transfer the hunger strikers to specialist departments, because of the pressure they have been put under to downplay the hunger strikers’ protests’.

The justice workers’ protests started on 16 February last year, when they rejected a union created by the Ministry of Justice and a ministerial directive which designated two workers in every ‘wilaya’ (region) to represent sector workers in negotiations with the government. Workers wanted to obtain representation through the National Federation of Justice Workers, affiliated with SNAPAP. Meanwhile, the government refused to consider workers’ demands regarding working conditions, saying that it did not recognize the validity of their union.

In the face of this refusal, the federation announced an indefinite strike, which was followed by 95 per cent of workers nationally. The strike was called off when an agreement was struck with the ministry, but resumed when it became clear that the government had no intention of honouring its commitments.

As well as demands for better working conditions, the workers want freedom to organize and freedom of expression. Although independent unions now exist in sectors across Algeria, the government, which sees the judiciary as a particularly sensitive area, is unwilling to cede control.

Until the revision of the Algerian constitution in 1989, incoming magistrates had to swear an oath in which they committed to ‘safeguard, in all circumstances, the superior institutions of the revolution’. With the new constitution (Articles 129 and 138), this oath was abolished and ‘independent judicial powers were guaranteed’, in theory ensuring that sector workers had the right and opportunity to organize autonomously. But this has proved not to be the case. The government is thus not only violating international laws to which it is a signatory, but also failing to respect its own constitution.

On 24 April 2012, a national protest by workers was brutally repressed, with arrests, threats, suspensions and pay deductions. Following this government crackdown, on 6 May the executive members of SNAPAP began the unlimited hunger strike.
Although the actions of the nine unionists have yet to move the government from its intransigent position, the hunger strike has mobilized the Algerian people and international institutions.

On 24 May, PSI (of which SNAPAP is a part) sent a letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, signed by PSI General Secretary Peter Waldorff, in which he called ‘on the Algerian government to advance negotiations and open a dialogue to tackle this crisis, which has lasted since the strike on 10 April 2011’.

The letter also states: ‘PSI condemns the inhuman attitude and disregard of guarantees regarding justice sector workers, who merely want to make known their legitimate demands, and who are asking for a statute which will regulate their profession, ending the workers’ precarious position. They are demanding that the Ministry of Justice honour the commitments it made on 22 February 2011 to increase wages and respect workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, as well as the abolition of Article 87b.’

Abolition of Article 87b of the work code is a longstanding union demand: the Article concerns how the minimum guaranteed wage is calculated, and controversially includes both allowances and premiums, neither of which, says the union, should be included.

The International Labour Conference has also expressed solidarity with hunger strikers, and has called on the Algerian government to respect international treaties.
On 22 May, SNAPAP called on the International Labour Organization to condemn the Algerian workers’ situation. Nassira Ghozlane says they will take the struggle as far as the United Nations.

Despite their increasingly precarious physical condition, the hunger strikers say they will continue to the bitter end, putting their lives on the line. Seeking only recognition of their rights – decent and dignified working conditions – they continue to be victims of intimidation and threats.

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