Spotlight Interview with Karima Boudrouaz (Algeria - UGTA)

“We have to fight to ensure that the law on equality is implemented”

“We have to fight to ensure that the law on equality is implemented”

Brussels 29 January 2007: Karima Boudrouaz, the first woman to be elected to the post of secretary in her region, Bordj-Bou-Arreridj, is very pleased with the change in mentality generated by the trade union campaign to recruit women in Algeria (1), and the impact on the men in particular, who, despite their initial wariness, “have understood that women are capable of being effective”.
Guided by the principle that “action speaks louder than words”, Karima, aged 29, now wants to embark on the fight to give young people a greater role in the trade union movement.

What motivated you to get involved in the trade union movement?

I started my career in education when I was 22, teaching philosophy.
I joined the union at the school were I was working because I was shocked at the discrimination suffered by the women around me. If a woman is absent from work, for example, she’ll be penalised, whereas a man will not. The discrimination is also blatant when it comes to promotion. Despite the fact that the majority of teaching staff are women, there are those who have been working in the sector for 25 years and haven’t been promoted once.
I was seconded from my teaching post three years ago and am working as the trade union education and training secretary, as well being the secretary of the women’s committee in my region, Bordj Bou Arreridj. In July 2005, thanks to my work with the women’s committee, I was the first woman to be elected to the post of regional secretary for my sector. Since then, several other women have been elected to such posts in Algeria.

What priorities did you set yourself in the beginning?

The first thing I did was to listen to the experiences of other women, taking advantage, for example, of the experiences recounted during a workshop for women trade unionists in Alger. The number one priority is to know the law, to be fully acquainted with women’s rights at work. The law guarantees equality, but we have to fight to ensure it is implemented.
The second priority is the problem of sexual harassment, which affects my region as much as it does the rest of the country.
We have done a lot of work at grassroots level. Thanks to the work of the women’s committee, we have been able to recruit numerous women in a variety of sectors. We now have 3000 women members in our region, 500 of whom are in charge of running the various women’s sections in the different sectors.

How do you go about making contact with women workers?

The first step, before approaching them in the workplace for the first time, is to obtain an entry permit, as required by law. If someone then tries to bar my entry in any way, I insist that it’s my right, that it’s the law.

What was the initial reaction of the women approached in this way?

They showed immediate interest, because it’s the first time that a woman, representing the women’s committee of the region, showed interest in the problems specific to them, such as harassment, promotion discrimination and a variety of other injustices. These are all problems that I was already aware of, because of my own experience at work. There were women of all ages. The young ones are often faced with the problem of unpaid wages, as many young women are employed on fixed term contracts and are not paid until they come to an end. The older ones more often raise the issue of barriers to promotion and career advancement.

How did the men react?

We met with a lot of negative reactions at first from the men; they would say, “what is this nonsense about women’s unions?”. But they have seen, with time, that women are capable of being effective and producing results. Their views have changed. Now there are even men who come to the women’s committee with their problems. It’s incredible how much the situation has changed in just three years.

Can you give some concrete examples of the action taken?

In the health sector of my region, the midwives had protested about the lack of gynaecologists. If something goes wrong during a birth and a gynaecologist is not present, it is the midwife who is legally responsible, and can go to prison. We met with the hospital director to explain the problem. Nothing changed, so we took our compliant to the next level, to the director of health. There was still no change, so we organised a general meeting of midwives and other hospital workers and threatened to hold a sit-in, with wide media coverage, if nothing was done. As this was the case, we held the sit-in, and I can tell you that the problem was soon resolved, with a personal commitment from the Wali (local governor) himself to place gynaecologists in the maternity ward and improve the hygiene conditions in the workplace.

Have you dealt with any concrete cases of sexual harassment?

There was recently the case of a unionised worker from the health sector, recognised by all for her exceptional professional skills, who was dismissed by the head of her department after having defended a colleague whom he had sexually harassed. She contacted the women’s committee in a terrible panic. We immediately met with the hospital director, who committed to reinstating her on the spot. The news spread like wildfire at the hospital, and boosted the image of the women’s committee, which subsequently had five other cases of sexual harassment referred to it.

Are you saying that a lot needs to be done to change the image of trade unions?

For me, being a trade unionist means being an advocate of the poor. In my sector, education, there is a lot of criticism of the male trade union officials who haven’t done enough to help the workers on the ground, which is why the negative perception exists that trade unions are above all concerned with protecting their own interests. Our philosophy within the women’s committee is that “action speaks louder than words”. It’s better to achieve concrete results than to make grand promises.

Has your involvement in the union created any problems in your personal life?

I’ve had the support of my friends and family from the very outset. My father is an intelligent man; for him, women have the right to freedom, the only limit is the freedom of others; it’s a question of individual responsibility.

What are the problems specific to young workers in Algeria?

The main problem facing young people is unemployment, especially in the big cities, and fixed term contracts. Everyone would like to have a stable job. Young people often find themselves unemployed again after working for six months, without any kind of compensation. There are many young graduates, engineers, doctors, etc. who are “young unemployed workers”. Some go back to live with their parents, but it’s very difficult, so many are forced into the informal economy.

What practical steps do you intend to take to give young people a greater role in the Algerian trade union movement?

The last UGTA Congress decided to set up a youth committee, but it has not actually been formed yet. I recently took part in a meeting of young trade unionists from the Maghreb, held in Tunis, by the UGTT (Tunisia) and CFDT (France). I learned about the experiences of other countries and at the end of the meeting, as the Algerian delegate, I committed to taking part in setting up a concrete action plan by the end of 2006. It’s an opportunity I wanted to seize, given that the UGTA Congress decided to set up a structure for young members and it’s time the idea was put into practice. I’m working with other young trade unionists, such as Souad Belaidi (2), who is also actively involved in the campaign to recruit women, on implementing the decision to set up of a youth committee, and am willing to take on the role of provisional president until the structure takes on its definitive form.

(1) The International Trade Union Confederation is carrying out an ambitious international campaign with the Global Union Federations (GUFs) aimed at organising women workers around the world called “Unions for women, women for unions”. The campaign is focusing primarily on women workers in the exporting processing zones and the informal economy, and on migrant women workers. Fifty-five ITUC-affiliated trade unions from 43 different countries and at least 20 GUF affiliates from 20 different countries are involved in this global campaign, which is part of the campaign to organise women workers originally launched by the former ICFTU in 2002 and then re-launched in 2004.
Under that global campaign the former ICFTU had launched a two-year organising campaign in three countries in the Maghrib region: Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania, supported by the publication of a campaign guide in Arabic.
In September 2006 a seminar was held in Marrakech to evaluate the campaign’s achievements in Morocco and Algeria whith the support of he Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). Over forty Moroccan and Algerian women trade unionists were thereby given the opportunity to evaluate the initial results of the campaign in their respective countries and to exchange their experiences at local level.

(2) Also see the interview of Souad Belaidi (Algeria – UGTA), entitled “The Campaign has Given Women a Taste for Asserting their Rights”

Also see the interview of Naima Bouguerjouma (Morocco –UMT), entitled “Women Have Understood that Joining a Union Provides Them with More Rights”.

See also the briefing on « Algeria – Women Are Making Progress in the Unions»

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