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Declared an LDC because of pervasive poverty, Mauritania is in the process of modernising its economy. However, social progress can't seem to keep up: purchase power continues to slide; wages and working conditions have stagnated at 1980s levels and the countryside and shantytowns are poverty-stricken. In very precarious conditions themselves, trade unions struggle to pull their country out of misery and neglect. Natacha David spoke recently to Abdallahi Ould Mohammed (Natah), General Secretary of the General Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (GTM) for the ICFTU spotlight interview.


ICFTU OnLine...

Mauritania: fighting with misery and neglect

Brussels, 5 February, 2002 (ICFTU OnLine): Declared an LDC because of
pervasive poverty, Mauritania is in the process of modernising its economy.
However, social progress can't seem to keep up: purchase power continues to
slide; wages and working conditions have stagnated at 1980s levels and the
countryside and shantytowns are poverty-stricken. In very precarious
conditions themselves, trade unions struggle to pull their country out of
misery and neglect. Natacha David spoke recently to Abdallahi Ould Mohammed
(Natah), General Secretary of the General Confederation of Mauritanian

Virtually no social dialogue, insufficient social protection, a social
security deficit, stalled labour code reform, non-compliance with collective
agreements, harassment of trade union representatives, interference with the
right to strike and a hostile legal environment....the defence of trade
union rights seems to be a genuine obstacle course in Mauritania.

Mauritania has ratified all 8 of the Fundamental ILO Conventions. However,
Mauritanian trade unionists find that things are not that clean cut. There
is practically no social dialogue. Meetings with the Ministry of Labour are
infrequent, very limited in scope, and we are only asked to give our
opinions. Employers are very reluctant to deal with unions. Social dialogue
generally only takes place when workers take industrial action in the event
of a labour dispute. The only exception is the industrial fishing sector
where some progress has been made. In many companies, freedom of association
is constantly short-circuited as a result of employer interference in union
elections. This occurs quite frequently in the private sector, where union
delegates are very vulnerable.

Labour inspectors are very poorly paid and corruption is rampant. There are
also regions that extend over 600,000 km2, in the middle of nowhere. For
these regions, there is only one labour inspector, without a phone and
without a vehicle! Not even the 6 to 7 labour inspectors in Nouakchott have
a car or phone. Even when a labour dispute breaks out, the labour
inspections are limited to arbitration. The legal environment is also
verging on the hostile- rulings are often contradictory and sometimes
completely ignored by companies.

What are your main demands with regard to workers rights?

Firstly, it is important that the public administration and industrial
courts be reformed so that they can play a greater part in the settlement of
labour disputes. In the Social Security system, there is a need for state
health insurance, elderly programmes and a reform of the occupational
medicine system. We also need to create an office of statistics (also
employing UTM and CGTM members) to gather reliable employment figures.
Moreover, employers should work with trade unions to raise wages. Trade
unions demand that employers stop resorting to assignment-based labour
contracts (because this violates labour market rules) and that there be
substantial limits placed on subcontracting, especially for government
procurement contracts. On the issue of privatisation of state-owned
enterprises, Mauritania's trade unionists are against what they view as a
clearance sale of state-owned property. They recommend that strategic
sectors remain in government hands.

As far as the bill to revise the labour code is concerned, nothing much has
been done to get this bill through the parliament since 1993, despite
promises made to the ILO. The trade unions are trying to pressure the
government into making this a priority issue.

With the high levels of unemployment, underemployment, seasonal employment
and generally a particularly harsh exploitation of the workforce, the rural
sector is the most directly affected by the problems of employment and
poverty. How will you be able to come to their aid?

We are not farmers by tradition, and are even less skilled at marketing. It
was only in the 80s, when the first Senegal river projects were completed
that agro-business and paid agricultural employment developed. Farming
equipment made it possible to use the land. Investment capital started
pouring in after the agrarian reform of the 80s. A new source of economic
growth emerged, at the price of widespread exploitation of workers:
extremely low wages and appalling working conditions (no protection or
respect for basic occupational health and safety rules). Job insecurity is
another major problem, together with the lack of Social Security coverage.
The CGTM is the only trade union present in the agro-business sector, our
presence is still limited but we are working on it.

There are roughly 40,000 paid workers employed by the agro-business sector.
Due to the limited resources that trade unions have at their disposal, it is
very difficult to organise workers. For one thing, we have to travel across
vast stretches of land to reach them. We are also unable to provide training
sessions for union officials. Workers want minimal social coverage and
greater dialogue with employers. However, on an institutional level, the
situation has reached a complete standstill because labour code reform has
gotten bogged down.

Along with agriculture, farming and mining, fishing is a key sector in the
economy. You denounce the new fishing agreement with the European Union as
endangering the survival of several species of fish and strangling the
already struggling domestic fishing industry.

Industrial fishing is an extremely difficult sector that has experienced
tremendous liberalization over the past few years. The sector is being
restructured and tighter restrictions on access to the profession are being
put in place. From now on, there will be a single list of job seekers to
ensure greater equity. After the biological interruption in September and
October, Mauritanian fishermen no longer have priority when it comes to who
gets hired. Interests and speculation are enormous. Sometimes, a worker has
to pay $500 just to get the job. Mauritanian fishermen who wish to work on
board EU ships find it very difficult to get hired. In theory, there are
quotas for Mauritanian fishermen. However, the reality of the matter is that
they often cannot get on board because there is no bed available. There is
cut-throat competition from labour in Morocco, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau.
Fishermen working for the national fleet are very poorly paid. There are
enormous differences in salary with respect to those paid by other fleets.
Not to mention the issue of subcontractors who sometimes disappear without a
trace, leaving their employees without a dime to show for their work."

Local fishing, although not as developed as industrial fishing, provides
four times more jobs than industrial fishing. There is also considerable
room for plenty of jobs at the top and bottom of the fish production line.
However, the socio-economic conditions of local fishermen are evidently
quite difficult. Moreover, trade unions insist that there are major safety
issues to be addressed since not a week goes by without there being an
accident at sea. And in Mauritania, life preservers and flare guns are very
hard to come by.

You also denounce the devastating effects of sub-contracting in the mining

Subcontracting has indeed gotten out of hand. 50% of the workers were laid
off and then rehired through subcontractors to do the exact same jobs. The
new conditions of labour are much worse: workers receive 10 times less than
they did before and have lost such benefits as housing and healthcare
coverage. Subcontractors do not bring capital, tools, training nor
professional skills, they merely act as intermediaries and pocket the
difference. In 1999, we managed to force subcontractors to declare their
workers with the Social Security Office and directly take union dues from

The second contentious issue in this area is the weekly rest allowance.
Workers traditionally get 24 hours, but this was extended to 48 by
Presidential decree in March 2001- with the exception of the mining
industry. When this dispensation was announced, the CGTM organised a work
stoppage. In an attempt to defuse this conflict, an interministerial
committee has been set up, but the new minister is none other than a mining
company executive. Trade unions have demanded 50% overtime for daytime hours
and 100% for night-time hours beyond legal 40-hour working week. It is hoped
that the situation will be settled soon.

With very limited social dialogue in Mauritania, you also denounce the
shortage of opportunities for dialogue with the government and with the
international financial institutions. How can the ICFTU help in these

For more than 15 years, the trade unions have been effectively excluded from
the process of social and economic reforms being undertaken under the
structural adjustment programmes- such as the new strategy to fight poverty
which runs from the present time until 2015. For examples such as this, we
would like the ICFTU to help us become more involved- in fact, we were
pleased to see that the ICFTU and its African regional organisation (AFRO)
recently organised a conference with us and the UTM (another ICFTU affiliate
in Mauritania) on the social dimensions of structural adjustment. The
international reputation of the ICFTU has without doubt been beneficial to
us in getting recognition from our government and the international
financial institutions which are established in Nouakchott. It was also an
opportunity to demonstrate to our Minister of Trade that the international
defence of workers' rights is in the interest of the most poor countries,
such as our own.

NB: Coinciding with the launch of an ICFTU equality campaign on 8 March
(International Women's Day), the ICFTU's online 'spotlight' service will be
concentrating on Mauritanian women.

More information on Mauritania will appear in the February edition of Trade
Union World.

Please click on the following web links for these articles:

Full text of 'spotlight' interview with Natah

"Chain gang" at the port in Nouakchott

Trade union rights: a poor record

Mauritania: fighting with misery and neglect

Social dialogue treading water amid persistent poverty

The ICFTU represents 157 million workers in 225 affiliated organisations in
148 countries and territories. ICFTU is also a member of Global Unions:

For more information, please contact the ICFTU Press Department on +32 2 224
0232 or +32 476 62 10 18.

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