UGTSARIO congress delegates
The 6th Congress of the Western Sahara General Union of Saguia El Hamra and Rio de Oro Workers (UGTSARIO) took place from October
19-21, 2008, in El Aaiun, one of four Saharawi
refugee camps in the Hamada desert in south-west Algeria.
The brutally harsh Hamada desert, justifiably termed the
most inhospitable place on Earth, has become the home away from home for more
than 160,000 Saharawi refugees since Morocco’s
occupation of Western Sahara
Three Australian trade unionists (two from the
Australian Workers Union --AWU -- and one from the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance -- MEAA)
travelled thousands of kilometres to attend the congress and participate in the
4th International Trade
Union Conference in Solidarity with the Western Saharan Workers, which was
convened as part of the 6th UGTSARIO congress. All three were also members of
the Australian Western Sahara Association.
The UGTSARIO congress was attended by 380 delegates
representing different sectors of Saharawi workers, from refugee camps as well
as from Mauritania,
Currently there are four unions affiliated to the UGTSARIO, and the rest of its
membership is made up of individual workers. There is a push to develop more
unions, specific to particular sectors. Most notable was the high number of
women delegates at the congress, which indicates a high level of women’s
participation in public life and work.
The congress officially opened with the singing of the
national anthem and a speech by Mohamed Abdelaziz, president of the Democratic
Republic of Western Sahara (SADR), honouring the contributions and sacrifices
made by Saharawi workers. Outgoing secretary general of the UGTSARIO, Mohamed
Cheikh Mohamed Lehbib, then presented the UGTSARIO bureau’s financial and
activities reports, before inviting international delegations representing 16
trade unions to give greetings.
Around 70 international guests attended the congress,
representing trade unions and organisations from the African Union, Algeria,
Windisch with locals.
also heard from former phosphate workers from the Western Saharan territories
occupied by Morrocco. Due to the fierce repression against Saharawis in the
occupied zone and a heavily mined 2500-kilometre long wall separating it from
the liberated areas and the refugee camps, the participation of these workers
could only occur via phone link up.
Over the three days the congress debated the adoption
of its new national program and elected a new leadership until its next
congress in four years. In a rare opportunity the Australian delegations became
``international observers’’ – able to witness the UGTSARIO election process,
which was fascinating and very democratic. Mohamed Cheikh Mohamed Lehbib was
re-elected general secretary with a high margin and a new executive bureau
was also elected.
Trade Union Conference in Solidarity with the Western Saharan Workers
This conference (targeted at the international guests)
was held on October 20, and was part of the 6th UGTSARIO congress.
It focused on discussing three main issues:
1) the plundering of Western
Sahara’s natural resources by Morocco
and other countries/companies and how to develop a solidarity campaign,
2) abuse of Saharawis’ human rights and
workers’ rights abuses by the Moroccan regime, in Morocco
proper and occupied Western Sahara
3) supporting UGTSARIO’s membership of
international trade union federations.
The conference was attended by representatives of 23
trade unions and organisations from 11 countries, representing more than 200
million trade unionists. Iberian peninsular trade unionists were the most represented
with three Spanish confederations (the UGT – linked to the current Spanish government,
USO and CC.OO), one Basque (ELA), one Galician (CIG) and one Portuguese (CGTP).
Italian unionists were represented via the CGIL (the General Confederation of
Italian Workers); the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) sent a
sizable delegation, as did the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), which
participated for the first time. The Algerian federation UGTA sent its general
secretary and OUSA – a
pan-African federation – and the World Federation of Trade Unions also
Ron Guy, representing the Australian Council of Trade
Unions (ACTU), spoke for our delegation on the conference panel. The Australian
delegation also represented the AWU and the Socialist Alliance.
In his conference contribution Ron Guy raised the
issue of natural resource theft as being critical to any solidarity campaign
that tries to achieve more than just deliver emergency aid to the refugee
camps, and instead sharply refocus on the illegal occupation of Western
Sahara and the Saharawi people’s claim of sovereignty
over their territory. Our delegation argued that Morocco’s
illegal trade deals with foreign countries and companies help finance the
occupation, and provide legitimacy and support for its continuation. Highlighting
this natural resources issue, we argued, automatically brings in the question
of sovereignty, which can be avoided by only focusing on human rights abuses.
Australian and Norwegian activists, represented by
three young Western Sahara Resource Watch members who are teaching English in
the camps, are helping to lead this specific campaign. Our reports about work
done in this area were enthusiastically received as were our proposals for
action. No other country represented at the conference had done any concrete
work/actions on this issue to date, even though their own countries are
profiting from trade deals with Morocco
relating to the theft of the Saharawis’ resources. The East
Timor struggle for independence was raised many times
during the conference, as it is very pertinent to the Western
Our delegation put forward a proposal for other union
federations present to join our protests against Australian company Wesfarmer’s
illegal imports of Western Saharan phosphate (Wesfarmer’s fertiliser subsidiary,
CSBP is the second-biggest Australian importer of phosphate from Western
We also moved for an international day of action
against the theft of Saharawi resources to take place; targeting companies
and/or our respective governments.
After discussion, a subcommittee of six people,
including a member of the Australian delegation, was nominated to develop a
declaration, reflecting the decisions and mood of the conference floor. The
final declaration (see below) included the proposal of an international day of
action in 2009 against natural resource theft, sending delegations to the
occupied territories as ``witnesses to the occupation’’ and to advocate for
UGTSARIO’s inclusion in international trade union bodies. There was some
initial resistance by the Spanish UGT representative to the inclusion of
support for an international day of action on resource theft in the
declaration, which was eventually resolved.
The declaration was unanimously endorsed by both the international
conference and the UGTSARIO congress.
The Australian delegation won respect from the international
guests and Saharawi trade unionists alike for our work and political
interventions we brought to the conference. The Saharawis know that more political solidarity is crucial in order
to move closer to finding a just solution to their desperate situation. And
this can only be done through pressure being put on complicit governments (such
by the international solidarity and workers’ movement.
The UGTSARIO general secretary came to visit us after
the congress to thank us for our participation. Our delegation was also interviewed for the Algerian
media and a Saharawi radio show.
The conference also presented us with the opportunity
to meet other trade unionists and strengthen important networks. Interestingly,
many of the international unionists present at the congress had heard about Australia’s
horrendous WorkChoices laws and the undemocratic, Gestapo-like Australian
and Construction Commission (ABCC)!
Interviews, media workshop and
Aussie rules football workshop
After spending four days at El Aaiun camp the
Australian delegation moved to the ``27 February camp’’ to continue its
solidarity work. UPES, the Saharawi Writers and Journalists Union, general
secretary Malainin Lakhal, who had visited Australia in 2007, helped us
organise important meetings with members of the community, SADR government
officials and other international solidarity organisations.
Media workshop with members of youth branch of 27 February refugee camp
Delegation member Margarita Windisch (MEAA member,
Socialist Alliance and Democratic Socialist Perspective activist, and Green Left Weekly journalist) held a
media workshop for members of a youth group from the camp. The workshop was
designed to give basic skills on how to write for a Western newspaper and help
promote the Saharawi cause internationally. The workshop was very interactive and finished with each
participant writing a news article of 300 words. Hopefully we will see articles
coming form Western Saharan writers more regularly.
member Garry Holliday gave an Aussie Rules football workshop (believe it or
not!) to about 100 schoolkids. Most of the Saharawi youth are very skilled in
soccer, so picking up the basics of Aussie Rules was a relatively easy task for
these natural talents. While we didn’t have enough time to cohere a Saharawi
team together to challenge our very own footy greats at the next grand final,
we certainly left a good impression and showed that solidarity can come in many
ways. Bringing back footage of the workshop will hopefully help raise the
plight of the Saharawi people in Australia.
aiming to get another mention on a football website that already advertised the
workshop in October and are working to get a spot on Australian TV’s sports shows.
Even though the Saharawi struggle seems obscure in Australia,
it has very close similarities with the East Timorese and the Palestinian peoples’
struggles for national self-determination. Furthermore, Australian companies (Incitec Pivot-- see http://news.theage.com.au/business/shareholders-approve-incitec-201-split-20080905-4aig.html
-- and Wesfarmers -- see http://www.wsrw.org/index.php?parse_news=single&cat=105&art=936)
are benefiting from the occupation of Western Sahara and the repression of its
people by the Moroccan regime.
The visit to the camps was a unique and very humbling
experience. It certainly showed what humanity is capable of -- from the most
brutal aggression by an elite few (the Moroccan government and its allies) for
economic gain, to the heroic resistance of a small nation in the most adverse
The Saharawi people show in practice that
collectivity, organisation and respect can make the critical difference between
the survival of a unique people and culture or its disappearance. Thirty-three
years of occupation, repression and life as refugees has neither dinted their
integrity nor dashed their hopes for justice.
At the same time the Saharawi people also pleaded with
us to continue and strengthen our solidarity work because they are painfully
aware that without international solidarity and pressure their struggle may be
1) That Australian trade unions endorse
the declaration of the 4th International Trade Union Solidarity Conference with
Saharawi Workers and actively pursue the key points and participate in proposed
2) Send further trade union delegations
the occupied zones and the refugee camps) and strengthen their relationship
3) Promote the Western Saharan struggle
among its members and in its publications.
4) Join and/or affiliate to the Australian
Western Sahara Association (AWSA: www.awsa.org
the trip are available at http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=67307&l=7aacc&id=675522663
Declaration of the 4th International
Trade Union Conference in Solidarity with the Western Saharan Workers, October 20, 2008, El Aaiun refugee camp
The trade unions that participated in the 4th
International Trade Union Conference in Solidarity with the Western Saharan Workers
on October 20,
2008, in El Aaiun (which was part of the 6th
congress of UGTSARIO) declare their concerns again about the situation of Western
- The lack of results from the direct negotiations
and the Frente Polisario under the auspices of the UN; after four meetings the
Moroccan government’s refusal to find a solution in accordance with UN
resolutions has been re-confirmed.
- In this regard, we reiterate our support for the UN
resolutions that demand the withdrawal of Morocco
from Western Sahara,
the ability to exercise the right to self-determination and the holding of a
referendum in which the Saharawi people can determine their future.
- In this year that celebrates the 60th anniversary of
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Moroccan government continues to
violate the basic human rights of Saharawis in the occupied territories with
impunity. The arrests, tortures, trials and arbitrary detentions, the
disappearances, the intimidations are normal practices that the Saharawi
population has to endure. In order to hide its repressive actions and deny
international condemnation thereof, the Moroccan government denies
international observers the right to enter Western
- The deterioration of basic living standards, working
conditions, education, sanitation and right to work is constant. To be Saharawi
becomes an obstacle to access employment, which converts itself into
discriminatory practice in contravention of the International Labour Organisation
and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- We reaffirm our position, which is outlined in
previous trade union conferences, and demand from countries, the European and
African Unions not to engage in agreements that affect the sovereignty of Western
Sahara and the exploitation of its natural resources.
- We reject the recent preferential trading status
and the EU. We also reject the exploitation of Saharawi natural resources, in
accordance with the international law enshrined in the UN resolution 1514. This
resolution prohibits occupying or colonial powers to engage in commercial
activities in occupied territories during the process of decolonisation.
- The UN resolution 1514 is violated by the presence of
Australian, Norwegian, South African and Spanish multinational companies,
amongst others, in the occupied territories, who have signed agreements with,
and have been given concessions by, the Moroccan government and companies to
exploit the natural resources.
- The trade unions present at the conference affirm
that within the current international trade union movement they have to
contribute to the presence of the UGTSARIO within international trade unions
- The observer status of the UGTSARIO, at the founding
congress of the International Trade Union Confederation and in the EU-African trade
union summit that took place in Lisbon, helped bring UGTSARIO further into the
international trade union movement. We consider that the participation of the UGTSARIO
in future trade union meetings is necessary for its future affiliation to
international trade union bodies.
- It is also necessary to include the UGTSARIO in the
trade unions’ policies of cooperation as a partner and develop projects that
include trade union and professional training in important sectors such as
health, education, construction and industries related to the environment, in
the refugee camps and liberated territories.
- At the same time we call on the international trade
unions to continue to provide food aid to the Saharawi refugees.
- With regards to human, labour and trade union rights
we demand of the Moroccan government to comply with ILO conventions and end its
discriminatory policies towards the Saharawi people in the occupied
territories. We also demand the freeing of political prisoners and that Morocco
takes responsibility for the Saharawi “disappeared”.
- We agree to inform the ILO about Morocco’s
violation of Saharawi labour and trade union rights.
- We agree to pressure our respective governments, the
EU and the African Union, as well as multinational companies and other
institutions to denounce :
a) the human
rights violations of Saharawis by Morocco
illegality of the agreements between Morocco,
government administrations and any companies that allow the exploitation of
Saharawi natural resources.
- We demand from the EU to be [consistent] in the
defence of human rights and democracy in its commercial agreements with
countries outside the EU.
- To reinforce actions of solidarity and protest, we
agree to work towards an International Day of Action in 2009 that focuses on
the grave situation of the Saharawi people and the exploitation of their
- We oppose Morocco’s
denial of access to the occupied territories by international observers to
witness the reality on the ground.
We believe that not solving the Western Saharan
conflict puts the development of a Euro-Mediterranean dialogue -- in which
important countries are either actively or passively involved -- at risk. It is
impossible to construct peace, stability and development in the Mediterranean region
without taking into account the rights of the Saharawi people, the occupation
of its territories and the violation of human rights, which are fundamental to
any democratic society.
Finally, we congratulate the members and delegates of
the UGTSARIO, for the outcomes of their 6th congress.
This declaration was signed by
representatives or members of the following unions and organisations:
African Union; UGTA – Algeria; UGT,
CC.OO, USO – Spain; CIG – Galicia; ELÄ – the Basque country; CGTP – Portugal ;
COSATU – South Africa ; NLC – Nigeria; Confederación Obreros de Campesinos
– Mexico; ACTU – Australia; AWU, Victorian Branch – Australia; AWSA – Australia;
MEAA – Australia ; Socialist Alliance – Australia; FSM – Greece; CGIL –
Italy; Western Sahara Resource Watch International – Norway.