Mauritania: Port workers strike to enforce the implementation of their agreements with the government despite the procrastination


Karim Benmansour

Mauritania is witnessing the strikes of hundreds of port workers, who are " blue-collar workers working in the unloading of containers at the Nouakchott Friendship Port" to pressure the government to implement their agreements concluded during the past years.

The port workers known as “porters” suffer greatly because of the harsh nature of their work, which is particularly exhausting. Every loading and unloading of containers, the workers’ heavy burdens and their physical sufferings get worse, and yet, the authorities did not recognize their efforts and they still receive low wages, in addition to the violation of their rights instead.

The bad relationship between the porters and the Mauritanian government is not new. In fact, it has witnessed ups and downs over many years. However, the recent decision by the Mauritanian authorities to procrastinate and withdraw from the implementation of the recent agreements was the straw that broke the camel's back.

We cannot talk about the Nouakchott porters’ strike file without returning to the historical dimensions of the porters’ situation, which was established during the sixties of the last century.

The history of grievances and struggle

The Nouakchott Friendship Port workers’ history is a history full of grievances. In fact, the port does not only represent the main vital constituent of the Mauritanian economy, it is also considered as one of the Mauritania's largest gates to the world, benefiting countries that do not overlook the sea as the neighboring Mali. Moreover, it has a national and regional role in revitalizing the economic cycle; however, the workers on the other hand still suffer from the harsh working conditions and the low wages.

Since its establishment, the port has hired porters belonging to shipping companies, but in 1972 the shipping companies decided to establish an association called “the port’s manpower employment office”. The Secretary-General of the General Confederation of Mauritanian Workers, “Abdallah Ould Mohamed”, confirmed that a list of workers has been established to regulate the procedures for the porters’ work. It was also agreed on reviewing the regulations annually in a precise and transparent way.

“Abdallah Ould Mohamed” confirmed that since the 1980s, the Labor Inspectorate and “the port’s manpower employment office” had not reviewed the regulations of the list, where the patronage, clientelism", and the illegal " mediation " prevailed these lists, thus, "some porters were favored more than some others " under a state of grumbling.

This situation ended with the protests of 1979 that forced the authorities to provide insurance and means of transport to porters in exchange for 20 ounces of each ton unloaded or shipped. However, the agreement was not implemented, and the "porters" were subjected to the most severe abuse. In fact,

the major companies working in this field were exploiting the porters through the “the port’s manpower employment office” and workers were even financially blackmailed and threatened by cutting large amounts of their salaries.

This situation continued until the beginning of the second millennium, when the "porters" entered the 2002 and 2004 strikes to change their situation. The Secretary-General of the General Confederation of Mauritanian Workers said that the protesters asked for the provision of the means of transportation and the health insurance, as well as, the setting of the porters’ work regulations and the increase in the financial remuneration of porters, in return of their unloading and shipping. However, the authority reacted badly towards their demands using violence by the security force as the gendarmerie intervenes and transform the "port workers’ file" into a secret file.

In May 2013, the port workers organized a protest in front of the presidential palace in an escalating step regarding the deterioration of their conditions. In fact, the authority agreed on some demands and signed an agreement to provide all porters, who are registered in the porters’ vocational list, with health insurance.

However, the workers were surprised and shocked by the reaction of the big traders of high authority, who refused to unload the containers coming to Mauritania inside the port, but moved them instead to the center of the capital to be unloaded there by foreign workers with a lower price.

Since that period, a large number of porters have been facing compulsory unemployment, that have affected the situation of their families, where they’ve suffered from discrimination and hunger up to 2014, where an unfair agreement was signed in favor of traders and businessmen more than the workers themselves, as the agreement stipulated the unloading of the containers carrying unimportant goods inside the port and to transfer the other containers to the city center to unloading them away from the local porters.

The local porters considered the agreement as a new starvation policy and decided to enter in a new strike in 2016 to ask for their rights. Consequently, the government pledged to sign a deal in 2017 with the protestors to pay the compensation of two categories of port workers.

The agreement pointed out that the porters would benefit from the right to a pension, as well as a twelve-month salary boost.

Moreover, the agreement stipulated that the third category of porters was granted the opportunity to go voluntarily and each leaver was given an incentive of twelve months of salary in addition to his provision with medical examinations.

However, as usual, the Mauritanian government did not adhere to its pledges and agreements relating to the prohibition of private companies from subcontracting, and the suspension of workers' recruitment in ways that do not take into consideration of the seniority of the "porter" or the results of the previous agreements signed between them, the government and businessmen.

Fair and renewable demands

Today, the porters’ demands have not changed that much from the old demands, but the problem lies in the government and the authority, which always evades and procrastinates in the implementation of its agreements with the workers.

In fact, workers are asking today for a well-equipped, functioning and maintained health point, with an ambulance, through consultation, prior to any recruitment operations, and through participating with them in the management of their affairs and to provide them with the means of transportation.

The workers stressed that they are insisting on their demands and that the practices of the authorities and the "powerful" merchants using intimidation and threatening will never discourage them from their struggle, stressing that they will enforce the implementation of all the agreement’s provision signed with government representatives and the private companies.

The workers also pointed out that they will not retreat from their demands to allow them to unload the containers in suitable conditions inside the city, not in the port, and to grant the rights of the retirees, stressing that the amounts allocated as a compensation for the unloading of containers is negligible a s it does not exceed $ 5 per worker for his participation in unloading the containers which arrive by ships to the port in the capital Nouakchott.

The workers’ spokesman said in a press conference that the porters want their legitimate rights and that they will never give up on them up, pointing that they are deprived of transportation and that they are suffering from unemployment in the port, where they used to go and work, which is not the case currently.

The workers' spokesman added that the state granted them the right to carry 18 sorts of articles, but the deal remained inoperative, accusing the state of procrastination and of the porters’ contempt.

The intervention of security forces and the support of trade unions and human rights organization

Following the escalation of the protestors and their insistence on the strike and in addition to the insistence of the Mauritanian government not to negotiate with the porters and not implement the agreements reached, the security’s solution is the most suitable one to the Mauritanian decision-makers.

The Mauritanian authorities cordoned off the port for security reasons, as the Mauritanian gendarmerie deployed to prevent protestors from reaching the port of Nouakchott and arrested a number of them after bloody confrontations.

The security forces used teargas and sound bombs to disperse the protestors by force amidst a group of workers, who confirmed their adherence to their demands and defense of their rights.

This security method, followed by the Mauritanian authorities to face the protestors has prompted a number of human rights organizations and trade unions to denounce it and express their emphasis on standing by the protestors in their defense of their legitimate demands.

The head of the Free Confederation of Mauritanian Workers, “Samurai Ould Bay”, condemned the government's policy dealing with the porters’ problems in the independent port of Nouakchott, noting that the authorities had excluded thousands of people without granting their rights.

The head of the Sahel for the Defense of Human Rights, “Ibrahim Ould Bilal Ould Ramadan”, called also the Mauritanian authorities to rethink and be wiser over the Nouakchott porters’ strike instead of using repression, calling for finding satisfactory solutions to end the crisis which started 2 years ago.

He also described the situation as catastrophic, as dozens of cars with armed soldiers are besieging workers inside the place.

“Ould Ramadan," said that the workers’ representatives who were summoned to the Ministry on Wednesday did not reach any solutions, but they were asked instead to stop the strike and carry on their work, so that negotiations about their demands would take place.

He also pointed out that the porters totally rejected the proposal insisting on the continuation of their strike and threatening of escalation if nothing changes, stressing that he called them for steadfastness and to peaceful protests.

The suffering of the Mauritanian porters continues in order to achieve their legitimate demands as the Mauritanian government's policy of procrastination and disregard continues as well, but fortunately the insistence of the porters to continue their peaceful struggle and protests stunned all the followers of the Mauritanian labor affairs, hoping that the authority would grant workers their rights and admit that their procrastination policy has just failed