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Abandoned hospitals, empty schools, deserted government buildings: Tunisia’s cities seemed like ghost towns on 17 January 2019. A nationwide public sector strike organized by the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) received mass support and solidarity from both the public and private sector with, according to the union, participation by more than 90 per cent of the 677,000 civil servants and 350,000 of the employees in public sector enterprises, representing a quarter of the population.
However, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed firmly rejected the UGTT’s demands for a wage increase of up to 180 dinars ($61) per month, describing it as “irresponsible, unaffordable and unjustified” and sought to return striking workers to their jobs with a requisition order. The workers refused to cooperate, having seen their purchasing power drop by 40 per cent since the 2011 revolution.
Tunisia is no stranger to protests by public sector workers. The 17 January protests came after a strike by civil servants in November 2018 and coincided with ongoing teacher boycotts over benefits and educational reforms, paralyzing the education sector and risking ‘a lost year’ (année blanche), which would oblige all primary and secondary school pupils to repeat the year. Although some analysts labelled the protests ‘tailor-made pressure’ on the government to force compromises, it is uncertain whether new agreements will be enough to resolve the current social discontent.
“Tunisia is not for sale,” Noureddine Taboubi, the head of the UGTT, told the crowd in a defiant speech at the start of the strike. “We have not elected a government to cede our acquired rights. We demand a sovereign state, independent national decision-making and a non-blackmailing government,” he added, clearly criticizing Chahed and mocking him for handing over Tunisia’s sovereignty to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for a staggering $2.9 billion loan that is tied to a strict economic reform program, including controls on public hiring and remuneration, raising tax revenues and slashing energy subsidies. Taboubi vowed to continue “the battle” until all the UGTT’s demands had been fully met.
Chahed sees the reforms as crucial for economic growth. “Every democracy has its price…We don’t implement the reforms because of the IMF but because the country needs economic growth, job creation and to reduce its budget deficit,” he said in an interview with CNN.
Although Chahed’s commitment to the IMF may make him unlikely to win a popularity contest, the PM is merely continuing a trend set by his predecessors. The government began implementing reforms to reduce public spending, encourage exports and make public sector enterprises more efficient in the early 1980s. By the summer of 1986, however, a persistent economic slump made it impossible for the government to avoid more aggressive reforms and left it no alternative but to seek assistance from the IMF and the World Bank. When Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, then prime minister (ousted in 2011), replaced President Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in November 1987, implementing the IMF reform plan was at the top of his agenda.
Ironically, and painfully so, authoritarian Ben Ali strategically co-opted the UGTT and implemented the reforms with union support. To date, no state or non-state actor has provided a solid alternative policy to address the deep-seated problems inherent in Tunisia’s heavy-handed and clan-based state control of domestic economics.
Although the UGTT has been a key player since the country’s struggle for independence, a loss of union power is looming and the UGTT needs a boost to reposition itself as an inevitable force at the heart of Tunisian politics. After taking part in the 2011 revolution, the UGTT helped to create the ruling party Nidaa Tounes in 2012 and subsequently gained international fame for its Nobel Prize-winning role in ending the political deadlock in 2013. However, in recent years, a resilient Chahed, who is more interested in building strong relations with international donors than collaborating with the unions, has ignored pressure from both the UGTT and Nidaa Tounes to step down.
Critics of the UGTT called the general strike an irresponsible move, jeopardizing stability and unity. But for most striking workers, the government has left them no other choice but to keep on fighting for justice. This is the case for Jamel (not his real name), a young secondary school teacher from the south of Tunisia.
“My generation, the class that passed their open-competition exam in 2018, was suddenly obliged to do a two-year internship in order to become fully qualified, whereas the Ministry of Education was simultaneously recruiting unqualified teachers – who had not passed the open-competition exam – for fully paid temporary positions. But the exam is legally required. And how did the government select people for one group or the other?” he said in an interview with Fanack.
“In addition, after almost a year of working, we never got paid our monthly internship compensation of 400 dinars [$132]. Can you imagine? In my school, there are not enough teachers to cover the compulsory curriculum, so some subjects are not taught. The government says they have no money to pay the salaries. In short, our demands fell on deaf ears,” Jamel said when asked to explain why the protests in the education sector are ongoing, emphasizing that their demands are not limited to increases in wages but also include education reforms and a law to protect teachers against harassment.
Jamel’s case is not unique. Stories about poor working conditions, late payments and inadequately equipped schools and hospitals have become routine. More than 35 years of a one-sided focus on budget cuts, exacerbated by delayed reforms due to continued political conflicts of interest, arguably make reshaping the public sector Tunisia’s biggest present-day challenge.
However, Jamel’s experience reveals another challenge: integrating the unemployed into the labour market. Unrepresented by the unions, uncontrollable and relatively young (youth unemployment stands at 32 per cent), these 638,000 people manifest themselves in different forms while contesting the privileges of the union members. Algerie Focus, an Algerian website, reported seven copy-cat suicide attempts in the three days following the self-immolation of an unemployed journalist in Kasserine, a poor city in west-central Tunisia, in December 2018. His death sparked clashes between demonstrators and security forces across the country to protest deteriorating social and economic conditions. Between 2011 and 2014, the number of self-immolations tripled.
“The unions were afraid that ‘the second Tunisia’ [people in the disadvantaged, impoverished regions] would disturb the 17 January strike,” Khayam Turki, analyst and founder of the independent think tank Joussour, said, referring, among others, to the violent anti-austerity rallies of 2016 and 2018.
In recent years, the UGTT has shown its pragmatic side and will probably do so again, while strategically increasing pressure and waiting for the opportune moment to reach an agreement with the government.
New elections are around the corner, and union leader Taboubi hinted at entering politics, “which is crucial for the young and fragile democracy” according to Taboubi. Whether the UGTT will manage to develop a solid long-term program to counter the political hegemony in economic policy remains to be seen.