Western Sahara: Phosphate workers exploited by Australia, Spain


Saharawi workers met in El Aaiun in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara on May 15 to discuss their grievances with their former employers: both Spanish companies and the Spanish government.

On June 2, Eddia Sidi Ahmed Moussa represented these former employees at an International Conference of the International Labour Organisation in Geneva.

Representing 24,000 Saharawi workers, officials and soldiers in 12 Spanish companies and 19 government departments and four branches of the Spanish military, he also made the case for compensation to widows, orphans and victims of work accidents.

These people worked from 1948 until the present day. Their rights include a retirement pension and other work rights.

Former colonial master Spain abandoned the territory in 1975 without resolving these issues and leaving employees unpaid for their work. The Spanish trade unions CCOO and UGT have undertaken to present the case to the Spanish authorities.

In February 2008, a union delegation from Italy, France and Spain met the former workers on a visit to Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara.

In the case of the phosphate mine at Bou Craa, Spain handed a 65% interest over to Morocco when it pulled out. The new occupying power immediately sacked more than 700 workers.

Morocco now owns the phosphate company 100%, but there is still no resolution for the Saharawi phosphate workers.

Three Australian companies import phosphate from Morocco sourced in Bou Craa in violation of international law, which protects the natural resources of a country, such as Western Sahara, that is waiting for a referendum of self-determination.

On June 2 a Norwegian pension fund KLP divested from Australian chemical company IPL on account of its unethical trade in this phosphate.

IPL joins Australian company Wesfarmers, which was blacklisted in December 2007. Tasmania's Impact Fertilisers is the third Australian company involved.

"Extraction of natural resources from occupied territories, particularly from Western Sahara, has been considered illegal by the UN's under-secretary general for legal affairs in 2002", Jeanett Bergan, head of Responsible Investments in KLP Kapitalforvaltning, said on June 2.

Brahim Mokhtar, the representative in the Nordic countries of the Western Sahara pro-independence group Polisario Front, said: "KLP has made a right decision. It shows that their ethical and legal analysis of the phosphate industry in Western Sahara is done very thoroughly. We hope other investors will follow KLP's example."

Australia is exploiting these former workers as much as Morocco and Spain have done. They deserve a fair go.

[Cate Lewis is international coordinator of Western Sahara Resource Watch. For more information visit www.wsrw.org.]