Thousands march as Morocco's labour unions protest economic reforms

RABAT, Morocco – Thousands of members of two of Morocco’s largest labour unions marched through the capital on Sunday to protest the Islamist-led government’s planned economic and labour reforms and its failure to stem unemployment and inflation.

Described as a “national march of protest” pushing for greater freedoms and rights, the few thousand demonstrators, brightly attired in yellow baseball caps and smocks, were smaller in number than past anti-government demonstrations by this North African nation’s labour movement.

The protesters were particularly irate over government plans to reform laws dealing with labour unions, including docking the pay of strikers and measures that the government says would increase transparency in union finances.

Chanting, the “people want the fall of the government” and calling for the departure of Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, the activists marched through the colonial-era streets of downtown Rabat in a light rain.

Benkirane’s moderate Islamist party won the most seats in elections following pro-democracy uprisings in 2011, and he took the helm of the government promising to fight corruption and address the North African country’s huge gap between the rich and the poor.

His fractious coalition has achieved little, however, and is currently embroiled in the sensitive process of reforming the massive subsidies and pension systems.

“The government has done nothing so far, not for the economy, not for social reforms and not even for the fight against corruption,” said Bouchra Sandeel, a teacher from Marrakech marching in the demonstration.

She expressed fear that efforts to reform the subsidies on fuel and food staples would hit the poor hardest in this country of 32 million.

Talib Ait Ahmed, a cannery worker from the southern coast city of Agadir, said he was protesting for a better life for workers in the face of the rising food prices and widespread unemployment.

Ait Ahmed acknowledged that the government faces constraints, but complained that the prime minister wasn’t doing anything to improve economic mobility and expand the small middle class.

“He’s not reacting. He sees the problem but hasn’t taken it in hand yet,” Ait Ahmed said.

Despite some reforms following the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations, true power in Morocco lies with the monarchy and those close to it. Benkirane has repeatedly blamed “remnants” of the previous government in the bureaucracy and administration for blocking his reform efforts.

A poll published Friday by the daily L’Economiste gave Benkirane a 64 per cent approval rating after just over a year in office. The paper noted it was a comfortable margin, but a 22 point drop from his 88 per cent rating last year.