a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law allows all workers, except members of police, armed forces, and foreign and migrant workers, to form and join independent unions of their choice at local and national levels and provides for the right to conduct legal strikes and to bargain collectively. Other provisions and laws severely restrict or excessively regulate these rights. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws, and penalties were not commensurate with penalties for similar violations of laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.
Prior authorization or approval by authorities is required before a union may be recognized. The public prosecutor must authorize all trade unions before they enjoy legal status. The public prosecutor may provisionally suspend a trade union at the request of the Ministry of Interior and Decentralization if ministry officials believe the union has not complied with the law. The law also provides that authorities may initiate legal proceedings against union leaders who undermine public order or make false statements. This law in effect authorizes administrative authorities to dissolve, suspend, or deregister trade union organizations by unilateral decision.
Noncitizens do not have the right to become trade union officials unless they have worked in the country and in the profession represented by the trade union for at least five years. Labor unions must obtain government authorization in order to hold labor elections. Despite previous promises, the government has not authorized union elections since 2014.
Bargaining collectively at the national level requires previous authorization or approval by the president, who decides how collective bargaining is organized. No such authorization is required for collective bargaining at the company level. The minister of labor, public service, and modernization of the administration may call for bargaining among employers, employees, labor unions, and the government. In addition the ministry is entitled to take part in the preparation of collective agreements. The law provides that the meeting must occur 15 days following a statement of nonagreement between parties.
The law provides for the right to strike, except for those working in services deemed essential. Aggrieved parties must follow complex procedures before conducting a strike action. If negotiations between workers and employers fail to produce an agreement, the case is referred to the Court of Arbitration. If the court fails to broker a mutually satisfactory agreement, workers may have to wait up to four additional months from the time of the decision before they can legally strike. The government may also dissolve a union for what it considers an illegal or politically motivated strike. The law prohibits workers from holding sit-ins or blocking nonstriking workers from entering work premises. Workers must provide advance notice of at least 10 working days to the Ministry of Labor, Public Service, and Modernization of the Administration for any strike.
The government did not enforce the law effectively and did not provide adequate resources for inspections. While authorities seldom punished violators, on several occasions the government ordered the reinstatement of workers who were wrongfully terminated or directed companies to improve employee benefits and services. While antiunion discrimination is illegal, national human rights groups and unions reported authorities did not actively investigate alleged antiunion practices in some private firms.
Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining were not fully respected, although unions exercised their right to organize workers during the year. Collective bargaining at the company level, however, was rare. On February 5, longshoremen of the Autonomous Port of Nouakchott went on strike to demand the full implementation of agreements reached during a previous strike in 2018. According to the Mauritanian Workers’ Free Confederation, authorities dismissed thousands of longshoremen in 2018 without giving them their rights, adding that the walkout came in response to the “arbitrary policies and decisions” taken against the carriers.
Registration and strike procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. Labor ministry officials routinely issued notices calling on all parties to negotiate. Such notices legally restrict workers from striking for a period of four months. Workers and unions organized several strikes and, unlike in previous years, authorities only occasionally employed force to disperse them.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits most forms of forced or compulsory labor, including by children. It also criminalizes the practice of slavery, which includes forced labor and forced child labor, and imposes penalties, both on government officials who do not take action in response to reported cases and on those who benefit from contracting forced labor. Penalties were not commensurate with those for comparable violations. The constitution and law make the offense “a crime against humanity.” The law grants civil society organizations the right to file complaints in court on behalf of victims as civil parties; however, many civil society organizations reported difficulty in filing complaints on behalf of victims. The law also provides free legal assistance for victims and refers to their right to compensation. Although the government is taking more steps towards ending the practice of slavery, including increased engagement with civil society groups, efforts to enforce the antislavery law were considered inadequate.
The General Delegation for National Solidarity and the Fight against Exclusion, or Taazour, was created in 2019 to intensify government efforts to combat slavery and address the social and economic conditions that have left many citizens vulnerable to forced labor. With a budget of 20 billion ouguiyas ($541.5 million) over the next five years, Taazour is implementing projects to improve living conditions and provide skills to members of historically marginalized communities. The institution has the authority to coordinate projects of other government agencies in order to maximize their impact. Taazour has an agreement with the CNDH to facilitate efforts by beneficiaries of Taazour projects to seek redress for any violation of their civil rights.
Only registered human rights associations that have been legally operating for five years can file criminal cases on behalf of former slaves. During the year the government continued to prevent the registration of certain antislavery organizations and associations that work for the promotion and protection of the Haratine community; these include former slave groups that would have been able to submit complaints once their five-year probationary period had expired.
As of December, IRA, created in 2008 and one of the most active organizations fighting slavery in the country, continued to be prevented from registering. The government’s refusal to register IRA and other human rights NGOs who could help to file complaints on behalf of slavery victims was a contributing factor to the underutilization of the three Specialized Antislavery Courts.
On June 29, the Nema special court ruled on two slavery-related cases. The court ruled that the first case lacked evidence and determined that the case was not slavery related. The second case filed by SOS Esclaves involved a slavery-like practice; however, the court decided to postpone the hearing until the next scheduled court session in order to conduct a more thorough investigation. The Nema special court recommenced operations on November 12 but still did not rule on the second case. On December 3, the Nouadhibou Antislavery Court ruled on three cases, sentencing three persons in absentia to 20 years’ imprisonment and imposing a substantial fine as compensation for the victims. The Nouakchott special court briefly began hearings in December before quickly closing again due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the exception of the June 29 ruling in the Nema special court, the specialized anti-slavery courts stopped hearing cases from March to November along with the rest of the judicial system in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Slavery and slavery-like practices, which typically flowed from ancestral master-slave relationships and involved both adults and children, continued. Although reliable data on the total number of slaves does not exist, local and international experts agreed hereditary slavery and slavery-like conditions affected a substantial portion of the population in both rural and urban settings. Enslaved persons suffered from traditional chattel slavery, including forced labor and forced sexual exploitation. Human rights groups reported that masters coerced persons in slavery and slavery-like relationships to deny to human rights activists that such exploitative relationships existed.
In 2015 the government asked the International Labor Organization (ILO) for a program to assess the scope of forced labor in the country. Among other activities, the Bridge Project supports research in the country on recruitment mechanisms and employment conditions to help identify different types of employment that may involve slavery or slavery-like practices. Most of the Bridge Project’s activities were postponed starting in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In September the project was extended to November 2021.
Former slaves and their descendants remained in a dependent status vis-a-vis their former slave masters due to a variety of factors, including cultural traditions, a lack of marketable skills, poverty, and persistent drought. Some former slaves and descendants of slaves were forced to revert to a de facto slave status by working for their former masters in exchange for some combination of lodging, food, and medical care. Some former slaves reportedly continued to work for their former masters or others under exploitative conditions to retain access to land that they traditionally farmed. Although the law provides for distribution of land to the landless, including to former slaves, authorities rarely enforced the law.
Former slaves in subservient circumstances were also vulnerable to mistreatment. Women with children faced particular difficulties. Because they were particularly vulnerable and lacked the resources to live independently from their former masters, they could be compelled to remain in a condition of servitude, performing domestic duties, tending fields, or herding animals without remuneration.
Some former slaves were coerced into continuing to work for their former masters, who relied on adherence to religious teachings and a fear of divine punishment to keep these individuals enslaved. Former slaves were often subjected to social discrimination and limited to performing manual labor in markets, ports, and airports.
Slavery, including forced labor and de facto slavery, were more prevalent in areas where educational levels were generally low or a barter economy still prevailed, and prevalent to a lesser degree in urban centers, including Nouakchott. The practices commonly occurred where there was a need for workers to herd livestock, tend fields, and do other manual or household labor. Nevertheless, such practices also occurred in urban centers where young children, often girls, were retained as unpaid domestic servants (see section 7.c.).
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law forbids some, but not all of, the worst forms of child labor. The law sets the minimum age for employment at 16. Nevertheless, it allows children as young as 12 to be employed in most forms of family enterprise with authorization from the Ministry of Labor, Public Service, and Modernization of the Administration, as long as the work does not affect the child’s health, exceed two hours per day, or occur during school hours or holidays. The law states employed children between ages 14 and 16 should receive 70 percent of the minimum wage and those who are 17 should receive 90 percent of the minimum wage. Children should not work more than eight hours a day, should be given one or several one-hour breaks, and may not work at night. Children working in unpaid, temporary, or noncontractual work do not have the same protections under the child labor laws and regulations as do children working in contractual employment.
The Ministry of Labor, Public Service, and Modernization of the Administration authorized children as young as 13 to do work in a variety of areas, resulting in children doing hazardous work by government authorization in the areas of agriculture, fishing, construction, and garbage removal. Additionally, the government does not legally prohibit all forms of hazardous work as defined by international law.
The law increases the penalties associated with violations of child labor laws and criminalizes commercial sexual exploitation of children and forced begging. It also increases the prison term for trafficking children. Penalties were not commensurate with those for comparable violations. The penalties were generally insufficiently enforced to deter violations. The law does not prohibit hazardous occupations and activities in all relevant child labor sectors, including domestic work and agriculture. The law prohibits the use of children for illicit activities, such as the production and trafficking of drugs.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. Mechanisms for exchanging information among agencies or assessing the effectiveness of child labor laws were not active during the year. There was no specific mechanism for submitting complaints, other than to labor inspectors or the Special Police Brigade for Minors. NGOs were the only organizations that handled cases of child victims, referred them to the Special Police Brigade for Minors, and pressured the government to adjudicate the cases or integrate the victims in social centers or schools during the year.
The CNDH’s 2016 annual report, which had the most recent numbers available, stated that 26 percent of children between the ages of 15 and 17 worked. The report indicated the proportion of children between the ages of 12 and 14 who performed some work increased to 22 percent. The report also stressed that exploitation of girls was more frequent in domestic work.
An unknown number of talibes (religious students), nearly all from the Halpulaar community, begged in the streets and gave the proceeds to their religious teachers as payment for religious instruction. There were reliable reports that some marabouts (religious teachers) forced their talibes to beg for more than 12 hours a day and provided them with insufficient food and shelter. The government continued a program to reduce the number of talibes and cooperated with NGOs to provide talibes with basic medical and nutritional care.
Child labor in the informal sector was common and a significant problem, particularly in poorer urban areas. Several reports suggested girls as young as age seven, mainly from remote regions, were forced to work as unpaid domestic servants in wealthy urban homes. Young children in the countryside were commonly engaged in cattle and goat herding, cultivation of subsistence crops, fishing, and other agricultural labor in support of their families. Young children in urban areas often drove donkey carts, delivered water and building materials, and were very active in garbage collection. Street gang leaders occasionally forced children to steal, beg, and sell drugs. In keeping with longstanding tradition, many children also served apprenticeships in small-scale industries, such as metalworking, carpentry, vehicle repair, masonry, and the informal sector.
The government continued to operate seven Centers for Protection and Social Integration of Children in Difficult Situations: one in each of the regions of Kiffa, Nouadhibou, Aleg, and Rosso, and three in Nouakchott.
Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination based on race, disability, religion, political opinion, national origin, citizenship, social origin, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, or language, but the government often did not enforce the law. Penalties were not commensurate with those for comparable violations. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to race and language. For example in conformity with long-standing practice, the advancement of both Haratines and sub-Saharans in the armed services remained limited.
The law provides that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work. The two largest employers, the civil service and the state mining company, observed this law; most employers in the private sector reportedly did not. In the modern wage sector, women also received family benefits, including three months of paid maternity leave. Women faced widespread employment discrimination, because employers usually preferred to hire men, with women overrepresented in low-paying positions (see section 6). There were known legal restrictions on women’s employment, including limitations on working in occupations deemed dangerous or morally inappropriate and certain industries including mining and construction.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law provides for a national minimum wage that is more than the most recent estimate for the poverty income level. The law provides that the standard legal nonagricultural workweek must not exceed either 40 hours or six days unless there is overtime compensation, which is to be paid at rates graduated according to the number of supplemental hours worked. Domestic workers and certain other categories could work 56 hours per week. The law provides that all employees must be given at least one 24-hour rest period per week. There are no legal provisions regarding compulsory overtime.
The government sets health and safety standards, and in principle workers have the right to remove themselves from hazardous conditions without risking loss of employment; however, this was rarely applied. The law applies to all workers in the formal economy, and the labor code applies to all formal workers regardless of nationality. Penalties were not commensurate with those for comparable violations.
The Labor Office of the Ministry of Labor, Public Service, and Modernization of the Administration is responsible for enforcing labor laws but did not do so effectively. The ILO reported that a significant pay gap between staff in the labor inspectorate and staff in other government inspection departments who receive better remuneration (such as tax inspectors or education inspectors) led to attrition of personnel. The number of labor inspectors, however, was sufficient for the labor force. The ILO also reported that the labor inspectorate was subject to undue influence by employers and the government, thereby reducing the effectiveness of inspection activity.
The majority of the working population labored in the informal sector, primarily in subsistence agriculture and animal husbandry. According to the General Confederation of Mauritanian Workers, only 25 percent of workers filled positions accorded regular pay.
Despite the law, labor unions pointed to conditions approaching forced labor in several sectors, including the food processing industry. In these sectors workers did not have contracts or receive pay stubs. Their salaries were below the official minimum wage, and they worked in unfavorable conditions. They occasionally did not receive pay for several months.
Working conditions in the fishing industry were similarly difficult. Commercial fishermen reportedly often exceeded 40 hours of work per week without receiving overtime pay. Additionally, some factory workers employed by fish-processing plants and boat manufacturers did not receive contracts guaranteeing the terms of their employment. Government inspections of fishing vessels, processing plants, and boat factories were rare.
Violations of minimum wage or overtime laws were frequent in many sectors but more common in the informal economy, which includes domestic service, street vending, artisanal fishing, garbage collection, bus fare collection, donkey-cart driving, apprenticeship, auto repair, and other similar types of employment. The National Agency of Social Security registered 204 workplace fatalities or injuries during the year, which was comparable with previous years.