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Nascent Independent Unions Play Key Role in Arab Uprisings

Isolda Agazzi

GENEVA, May 26 2011 (IPS) - In the Arab world, most trade unions are affiliated to governments, but independent labour organisations are starting to emerge.

From left to right: Ghassan Slaiby, Nassira Ghozlane and Belgacem Afaya.  Credit: Isolda Agazzi/IPS

From left to right: Ghassan Slaiby, Nassira Ghozlane and Belgacem Afaya. Credit: Isolda Agazzi/IPS

In Tunisia and Egypt they have been key in overthrowing corrupt regimes, while in Algeria and Bahrain they are trying to bring people to the street. For Arab unionists, the State must play its role to consolidate the economic transition, and privatisation is not the solution.

“In Tunisia, we say that reversible jackets are out of stock. Some UGTT unionists who were affiliated to the RCD (the party of ousted president Ben Ali) have reversed their jackets and are now fully in support of the revolution. But the process has reached its limit,” Belgacem Afaya, secretary general of the General Federation of Health of Tunisia, a member of the UGTT, told IPS in an interview.

The UGTT, the umbrella organisation of unions in Tunisia, played a central role in January in mobilising mass protests against Ben Ali, together with the association of judges and lawyers, students and cyber activists.

Afaya and other unionists have come to Geneva for a meeting of Public Services International (PSI), the global confederation of public service trade unions. In the Arab region, the PSI has 36 affiliates in ten countries.

“Most of the unions in the Arab region are close to the government and only two national federations have supported the recent revolutions: the UGTT in Tunisia and the brand-new federation of Bahrain, currently repressed by the regime,” Ghassan Slaiby, PSI sub-regional secretary for the Arab countries, told IPS.

In Egypt, two independent unions have recently been created, but they were illegal until the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak, in which they actively participated. Others are also emerging, but the old ones are still there and now serve the new government. “They know how to do it, they are used to it. In Egypt, reversible jackets are not out of stock,” Slaiby says ironically.

Unions in the Arab world have a tough life. Even among PSI affiliates in the same country, positions differ greatly. In Yemen, one union is in support of the revolution, while the other two are on the government’s side. In Libya, they can neither be with long-time leader Muammar Qaddafi, nor with NATO, which is suspected of pursuing its own interests – “Why doesn’t (NATO) also act in Syria, Bahrain and Palestine?” wonders Afaya, echoing a common feeling among Arab public opinion.

As for Jordan, even though things are moving slowly, some unionists are in favour of a radical political change, but they are still very isolated.

But overthrowing the government is one thing, and ensuring a viable economic transition is another. “In Tunisia, unemployment and insufficient purchasing power have taken people to the street,” Afaya said. “Today the situation is still tense, even though the government, denying persistent rumours, says it has enough money to pay salaries till July.”

With foreign debt representing almost 40 percent of GDP, he believes that the government keeps making the same mistake – borrowing abroad. Instead, it should try to recuperate the money that was stolen by Ben Ali and his clan, improve social and fiscal justice and equity between the regions, support quality public services and promote the right to health care.

“Ben Ali created a two-speed health system,” he said. “Hospitals have been neglected and people go to public clinics if they can afford it. Now we have to improve the system and one of our major recent successes is an agreement with the government to shift away from temporary and precarious jobs and forbid subcontracting in hospitals.”

Algeria is in a different situation. Nassira Ghozlane, secretary general of the national union of public administration workers (SNAPAP), believes that, despite two harshly repressed rallies in February, people are not ready for a revolution.

“They don’t want to repeat the scenario of the 1990s, when 200,000 people were killed and 10,000 disappeared,” she told IPS. “But we want to break down this wall of fear because we need a radical change. We don’t believe in the reforms that the government has just announced. The country is ruled by the military security and the entire system must change, not just president (Abdelaziz) Bouteflika. They must go. ”

Massive privatisations have led to the closing down of thousands of public enterprises, while the selling of water, oil and gas to foreign companies continues.

“We are against these privatisations,” she said. “Wages are the lowest in North Africa. Millions of Algerians are on a precarious contract and earn 25 euros a month. In the hospitals, emergency room doctors earn between 40 and 90 euros. The salary of a secondary school teacher is six times lower than that of a Tunisian and the salary of a university professor is four times less than that of his fellow Mauritanian.”

After three decades of squeezing of the public sector, Slaiby says the point of view of PSI on privatisations has evolved: “At the beginning, we thought we had to negotiate with them. Then we were in favour of public – private partnerships. Today we are clearly against privatisations. We have experienced them and we cannot pretend any more that the private sector is more efficient or that it lowers costs. We want quality public services, but we need to reform them.”

So how will the State finance quality public services? “With taxes, better distribution of income, and public spending, which has been rehabilitated by recent studies. The financial crisis has underlined the need for social justice again, because it could not have been overcome without the intervention of the State,” he concluded.

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