ROUIBA, Algeria (Reuters) - About 500 striking Algerian workers blocked a main road near the capital on Thursday and confronted lines of riot police equipped with water cannon and armored vehicles.
The incident is the latest in a series of outbreaks of unrest over price inflation and living conditions which some analysts say could undermine Algeria’s fragile stability as it emerges from years of conflict with Islamist insurgents.
The stand-off with police in the industrial town of Rouiba began after the 5,000 employees of the state-owned National Company of Industrial Vehicles (SNVI) began indefinite strike action to demand higher wages and better terms.
Workers at several other factories in Rouiba, an area where about 20,000 people are employed, joined the strike on Thursday and took part in a protest rally near the vehicle plant.
There were some minor scuffles when riot police moved in to block the protesters from marching toward Algiers.
“We can’t stop now. We will go forward. Our demands are fair, and the government must listen to us,” the leader of the SNVI’s union, Benmouloud Ameziane, told Reuters.
For many Algerians, the strike in Rouiba carries echoes of the “Black October” events in 1988 when a protest movement that started in the factories there led to rioting across Algiers in which about 500 people were killed.
Those clashes are widely viewed as the start of an armed rebellion by Islamist insurgents that lasted over a decade.
Algeria’s government has tried to head off popular discontent by spending billions of dollars in revenue from oil and gas exports on schemes to improve housing conditions, build infra-structure and create jobs.
However, it has been unable to restrain inflation, which workers say has wiped out pay increases.
Consumer price inflation averaged 5.7 percent in the first 11 months of last year, official figures showed, but prices for fresh agriculture produce have soared by up to 21 percent.
“I am a poor worker in a rich country. My salary is not enough to feed (and) educate my four kids,” said Ali Mansouri, one of the strikers who was wearing an oil-stained work apron.
Signs of social unrest have been on the increase. In October, about a hundred protesters angry at housing conditions threw stones and petrol bombs at police in a shantytown in the capital, seriously injuring one policeman.
A teachers’ union staged a three-week strike at the end of last year, one of the biggest in Algeria for years. Senior doctors have now launched their own industrial action.
Editing by Jon Hemming