By Souhail Karam
RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco's plans to introduce a law this year to regulate strikes will test the Islamist-led government's ability to carry out reforms to modernize an economy that is badly in need of foreign investment.
The North African country averaged a strike a day last year, the highest number in a decade, often paralyzing public services and leading to the loss of more than 300,000 working days, a near threefold rise from 2010, official figures show.
Those are high numbers for a country where barely 10 percent of the 10-million workforce is affiliated to trade unions.
The planned legislation would force unions to hold direct talks with employers before being able to call a strike and could impose fines on employees who strike unlawfully. But it faces stiff opposition from the country's trade unions who have taken advantage of recent protests against poverty and unemployment to increase their membership and have started to infiltrate fast-growing sectors such as call centers, which authorities are trying to promote as engines of future economic growth and job creation.
Noubir Amaoui, who heads the Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT), the biggest union among public sector workers, rejected any talks with the government about regulating strikes alone.
"We need a million laws to organize public life ... How can authorities allow skilled workers to be paid the minimum wage? Why does it let the majority of private sector employers get away with violations of the labor law," he said.
The country's first constitution in 1962 authorized strikes but subjected their organization to a framework law which has never seen the light of day as previous governments feared it would spark a confrontation with the main unions. Since then, the number of unions has risen from two to 25.
Court clerks crippled the justice system last year with strikes over pay that went on for 46 days.
A strike by dockers at Tangier port on the Mediterranean last year prompted some foreign shippers to temporarily snub the port, developed by Rabat at great cost a few years ago in a bid to make the city a major industrial and shipping hub for foreign investors.
While there are no estimates on the exact financial cost strikes cause the $100-billion economy, analysts say their repercussions on investment are amplified by still poor economic competitiveness.
Morocco's economy is forecast to grow by 3-4 percent this year, well below the government's target of 5.5 percent annual growth it says is needed to boost jobs. Foreign investment has slumped in the past two years - due in part to the crisis in the euro zone, Morocco's biggest investor and its main trading partner - pushing the country's current account deficit to its highest level since the 1980s.
A senior official in the government, led since December by moderate Islamists of the Justice and Development Party (PJD), said a framework law on strikes would be submitted to parliament before the end of this year.
"The aim is to avoid the kind of total paralysis that hit public services and some private firms because of strikes," the official said. "We will not ban strikes, we will just issue regulations that would put curbs on anarchy in strikes."
Quizzed by a French executive earlier this year about "repetitive strikes" in Morocco, Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane blamed former colonial master France for introducing industrial action to the country.
For businesses, which have agreed to new taxes in 2012 to help the government shore up ailing public finances, the strike legislation, part of wider reforms which include making the judiciary more independent, is a welcome development.
"Morocco cannot keep ... businesses hostage to people who don't always have the best intentions which ... leads some firms to just close shop," said Jamal Belahrach, who heads labor relations at CGEM, the country's biggest employers' group.
Karim Tazi, chief of the textile industry group AMITH which employs 200,000 people and is a key exporting industry, said many textile firms had been forced to close down due to strikes.
"There are firms that deserve strikes (for violating labor laws) and there are more firms that end up closing unfairly because five or six employees have the charisma to cause an anarchy of strikes," he said.
'DEFENDING THE DEFENCELESS'
The draft law, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, authorizes strikes "only after direct or indirect negotiations fail", and on condition employers are notified 10 days before the strike date, and two days if the strike is about the non-payment of wages or unresolved disputes in the workplace.
The law bans firms from sacking employees or recruiting replacements during lawful strikes, which would end a practice many private employers use to circumvent their workers' demands or force them to abandon industrial action altogether.
Samira Kinani, a prominent figure in the biggest trade union, the Moroccan Labor Union (UMT), said strikes were a reflection of the absence of proper worker rights.
"Too often, authorities do not make sure labor laws are enforced. The crushing majority of workers still don't have social insurance, not even a work contract. Unions must fill the vacuum left by the state to defend the defenseless," said Kinani.
"The push for this law shows how the government has lost its bearings with the economic problems in Europe and here and with the Arab Spring. What is really motivating the authorities for this law is their preoccupation with security," she said.
At the height of pro-democracy protests last year, inspired by the Arab Spring revolts elsewhere in the region, the then government agreed to raise wages for private and public sector employees.
Coupled with promises by King Mohammed to trim his powers, the measures helped Morocco to sidestep the kind of unrest that toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
But regular protests continue to erupt against unemployment, poverty and official corruption. Some have turned violent.
Economist M'hammed Grine said the regional unrest and economic hardships at home "should eventually lead to the inception of a law on strikes that suits all parties".
"I don't think the government, after what happened here (pro-democracy protests) can afford to opt for a law that will hurt workers' interests, nor can it enact a law that will not protect employers from anarchic strikes considering the economic conditions it is facing," he said.
(Editing by Susan Fenton)