ALGIERS — Algeria’s top energy officials Sunday said they plan to meet “legitimate” pay-increase demands by employees of state oil-and-gas company Sonatrach Spa in a bid to solve a protest that could have threatened production and vital export revenue.
Several workers at the Hassi-R’Mel gas field, Algeria’s largest, went on hunger strike last month, demanding effective payment of bonuses and various compensations that had been negotiated as far back as 2002.
The looming pay concessions, which could be approved by the Sonatrach board on Tuesday, show how Algerian authorities are using their oil-and-gas checkbook — energy accounts for 97% of export revenue here — to appease social conflicts which are multiplying in the North African country.
Founded in 1963, a year after Algeria won its independence war against colonial ruler France, Sonatrach is both the backbone of the nation’s economy and a yardstick of social climate in the country.
“If the response falls short of our expectations, we will radicalize our protest,” Sonatrach employee representative Ali Arhab said in a telephone interview from Hassi-R’Mel.
Algeria’s Energy Minister, Youcef Yousfi, said authorities were willing to improve the conditions of employees who work in remote parts of the Sahara desert. “It’s normal to review claims when they are reasonable,” he said in an interview.
Yet, economists say the government risks draining Algeria’s hard currency reserves of some $150 billion if it continues bowing to all sorts of protests in an apparent effort to avoid uprisings similar to those that led to the ousting of authoritarian rulers in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year.
On Sunday, hundreds of local police officers protested in central Algiers for the second time in a month, saying they wanted to have the same pay and same benefits as national policemen. Last week, the government pledged to give full fledged contract to about 20,000 supply teachers, some of whom had been demonstrating across the street from the office of Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for days.