26 Apr 2013 update: video of the workers hearing details of the deal.
There are precious few videos of worker protests or meetings in Mauritania.
24 April 2013: Striking dockers in Mauritania gathered outside the ministry of transport. They avoided a replay of this week’s violent police oppression by arriving early in the morning, making their way in small groups or alone.
The workers heard from their representative, who announced that agreement had been reached to meet their demands, most importantly a 5MRO increase in the per-kilo lifting payment, and provision of a medical centre and ambulance. Thousands of dockers working as day labourers currently earn something like 4 Euros per day.
Workers insisted on staying until the agreement was signed. Even so, vigilance will be maintained to make sure the government does not renege on the deal. As I wrote this, I saw an update warning that the 5MRO pay increase was already in doubt.
A press conference scheduled for 2pm Wednesday by the free trade union would have been the rallying point for further peaceful protest, one which the media could not be banned from hearing or pretend to ignore. In light of development, the dockers called their own press conference for 10am Thursday 25 April.
Issues of pay and conditions have been a source of contention among port workers for a long time, and there are several reasons behind the decision to strike from Monday 22 April:
- Their appeal for a very moderate pay increase had not been addressed by authorities for many months
- 180 dockers were arbitrarily dismissed last month; they have no contractual employment protection or rights to appeal and this highlighted the precarious lack of job security for all port workers
- A docker died a couple of weeks ago after an industrial accident. He had to wait over 3 hours for medical help to arrive because there is no on-site medical facility.
- Price inflation has been eating away at the dockers already meagre earnings, yet being employed means they are far less likely to benefit from charitable or state-run projects for poverty reduction.
On a video posted on Facebook, a dock worker reveals the extent of dire working conditions, Aziz’ broken promises.
Rough transcript: “My name is Mohammed, I work nights. We have no safety clothing, not even when we descend into the holds loaded with agricultural insecticides. There’s no healthcare or medical centre on the site, and we are decducted 6-7000 MRO a month for access to the only water – an open-air bath outdoors. The President came to visit here and said he would improve conditions, but it has only gotten worse and he has forgotten his promises.”
The most recent protests began at the port on Wednesday 13 March but many people were unaware of the scale of unrest until the sit-in on Monday 22 April, which gained the support of a majority of workers. Security police rushed to the scene, confiscating cameras and sending media away from the area before launching a barrage of hundreds of tear gas canisters and sound grenades at the workers, attacking them with batons and arresting about 25 protesters.
Several injuries were reported and nine protesters were taken to the hospital for emergency medical treatment.
A small fire using scraps of board and a discarded tyre was extinguished by some of the strike leaders, who explained to the others that this type of action was not necessary or in keeping with their image, and would be used against them as a stain on the character of the peaceful protest action.
Several members of the m25fev civil activist movement are port workers, and they rallied support from m25fev and others for the following day, at which point the centre of protest moved towards the city centre and the presidential palace. Once again, security launched a violent attack and made several more arrests. Four detained workers were seen being taken to an unknown location.
Members of m25fev held a vigil outside Nouakchott security HQ to protest the arbitrary detentions and demand the release of all protesters. In the dead of night, the detained workers were taken outside the city limits and abandoned there to make their own way back on foot.
The presence of civil activists resulted in a rapid spread of news on social media networks, and some opinion pieces, with statements of support from labour groups and condemnation by human rights organisations, but the overall lack of media coverage was deplorable.
The media need to raise their game, because it would seem that a season of industrial action in Mauritania is looming:
- port workers in Nouadhibou reached a compromise agreement Thurday, 25 April with authorities to end their long-running strike and protest actions over pay and conditions
- workers at the SNIM mining operation are planning industrial action beginning with a limited work stoppage on Sunday
- at the Kinross Gold mine, CGTM union members are threatening to strike over non-payment of a promised bonus
- teachers in Zouerate are threatening three days of strike action and a boycott of exams over pay and conditions
Civil protests in Mauritania continue with almost daily events demanding electrical power and/or drinking water in many parts of the country, plus a protest today by traders in Nouadhibou, who have no replacements for plastic bags which were banned in January and again in February after a brief respite.
There was a great deal of sympathy and support for the workers expressed by social media users, but not all reactions were favourable. A Mauritanian news website, atlasinfo.info, posted an item claiming that the workers were chanting racist slogans and making other outrageous comments which were completely fabricated. The item was quickly removed, but not before activists made a screen capture image and located the page in a search engine cache. Such blatant propaganda – commonly held to be enacted in support of the regime – is incredibly dangerous, but it does hint at the level of fear which might be generated within the regime by the prospect of united protests involving workers and civil activists. At an individual level, I saw one or two fairly typical remarks accusing m25fev of trying to capitalise on the workers’ situation. Such comments were made in ignorance of the broad-based support and membership of m25fev, which is often mistakenly viewed as a political entity.
In my opinion, most of these identity issues for m25fev stem from the organisers’ decision to retain the name after the debacle of April 2011, when the original 25 February group was compromised by infiltration and there was a lot of confusion and unpleasantness. Two years later, they are still paying the price of this decision, which is compounded by a lack of consistent effort to confront persistent misconceptions and re-frame their story. Meanwhile, the abolitionist movement IRA appears to be moving in the opposite direction to m25fev, towards the political arena. Time will tell what this gamble might cost them.