Chanting support for their union and for worker rights, more than 7,000 members of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) packed the Menzah Sports Palace in Tunis today in a boisterous, enthusiastic May Day celebration.
“We are committed to defend worker rights and workers’ interests and we shall struggle for more justice, equality and freedom”–UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine Tabboubi Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Our principles are to defend the independence of this country and to defend the people of this country,” said UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine Tabboubi. “We are committed to defend worker rights and workers’ interests and we shall struggle for more justice, equality and freedom. We shall combat all forms of abuse and oppresssion.”
In a speech interrupted frequently by chants of “Long live UGTT” and “With blood and with spirit we remain loyal to the UGTT,” Tabboubi outlined the union’s efforts to work with the government in reforming public services without resorting to privatization, a move the union says would lower wages and create precarious jobs and reduce or eliminate access to pensions and health care.
“The UGTT’s priority is for the national interest”–UGTT member Dhouha Kouki Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
UGTT has been the leading force in protecting democratic gains following the 2011 Tunisian uprising in which workers, outraged at high unemployment and low wages despite the country’s economic prosperity, ousted Tunisia’s dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. During the ensuring interim government, UGTT proposed a constitution that included the freedom to form unions and strike, proposals that were maintained when the new constitution was approved.
“In the light of the weakness of the different goverments, the UGTT remained the only reasonable power that ensured stability, but it also ensured a balance between workers and the government,” says Dhouha Kouki, a call center worker and UGTT member who took part in the May Day celebration. “UGTT’s priority is for the national interest.”
As workers waved Tunisan and UGTT flags, some wearing shirts imprinted with the demands of the 2011 uprising–“Employment, Freedom, National Dignity”–Taboubi said: “The goals of our revolution shall be achieved and nobody can confiscate our right to freedom, dignity and social justice.”
Economy Teeters on Crisis
A UGTT member holds a sign reading, “I am a trade unionist and I defend my country and my fellow citizens’ institutions.” Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
With 750,000 members across Tunisia, UGTT represents mineworkers, textile workers, professional employees and many others, including 75 percent of public-sector employees. The union federation has organized 250,000 members since the 2011 uprising, many of whom were formerly subcontracted government employees with low wages, no access to social benefits or secure employment. UGTT worked with the interim government within a month of the revolution to bring subcontracted workers into full-time employment, says Sami Tahri, secretary-general in charge of information.
Since then, the UGTT, a Solidarity Center partner, negotiated a 6 percent wage increase for private-sector workers in 2012, an 11 percent increase in the mininum wage in 2014, and an improved contract for high school teachers in 2015, according to “Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.”
Yet the increasing number of workers in the informal sector–which represents more than 54 percent of the country’s gross domestic product–lack of investment in job creation, especially by financial institutions, and an official unemployment rate of 16 percent, including 250,000 university graduates in a country of 11.6 million, mean Tunisia is facing an economic crisis, says Tahri.
Workers in the informal economy are “deprived of all their economic rights and have no social protection like paid sick leave or pensions,” he says, speaking through a translator. Tahri says the official unemployment rate is likely much higher because many people are not counted.
Retirees are suffering the most, especially those who worked for private employers, Tahri says. Many private-sector employers do not fully pay into the country’s social security system, resulting in pensions so low that 25 percent of retirees receive less than the minimum wage, and another 30 percent receive only the minimum wage, says Tahri.
Creating a ‘Solidarity Economy’
Sami Tahri, UGTT Secretary General in charge of Communications, says UGTT is assisting workers through multiple strategies. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
The UGTT is tackling the challenges facing Tunisian workers through organizing and legislative action. In partnership with allied organizations, including the Solidarity Center, UGTT is organizing rural workers in Tunisia’s long-neglected interior, where most of the 1.5 million agricultural workers are women who are not covered by social benefits like pensions and who toil in dangerous and harsh conditions, often into their seventies.
The UGTT also submitted legislation to the national parliament that would create a “solidarity economy” in which the government finances young workers, especially those in agriculture, service and handicrafts, to create their own “start-ups,” with part of the profits returning to the government to fund more new enterprises. By targeting workers in the informal economy, the program also would bring more workers into the social security system, which also is underfunded because there are now five retirees for every one worker. In the 1970s, Tahri says, the ratio was reversed.
Additionally, UGTT has reformed internal union structures to reflect women workers, who comprise the majority of workers in industries such as education, health care and auto parts manufacturing. In 2017, the UGTT Executive Board voted to require executive boards at all levels of the union to include at least two women and better represent its membership.
In 2013, the UGTT was instrumental in brokering a peaceful path to democracy as part of the Tunisian “Quartet,” which was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
From Cambodia to Zimbabwe, in Serbia and Honduras, hundreds of thousands of workers and their families celebrated International Workers Day, honoring the dignity of work and the accomplishments of the labor movement in defending human rights, job stability, fair wages and safe workplaces. Together, workers and their unions are demonstrating their commitment to sustaining and improving worker lives.
Click here for our photo essay of May Day events by Solidarity Center allies around the globe.
Workers in Bahrain, Burundi, Morocco, Swaziland and Turkey are standing strong in the face of economic and political threats this May Day.
May 1 is generally a time when workers around the world celebrate the dignity of work and working people’s social and economic achievements. But this year, governments in some countries have banned May Day celebrations, while elsewhere, workers are forced to protest lack of progress in attaining their share of economic prosperity.
Working women and men are undaunted by intimidation and, in some cases, risking their lives to exercise their freedom to gather in the public space and stand up for their rights. This year more than ever, May Day stands as a beacon for internationally recognized human and labor rights. Here’s a roundup.
Bahrain: The government on April 30 banned all May 1 rallies, forcing the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) to abruptly cancel its weekend celebrations. The federation had planned a rally, medical camps, family outings and award ceremonies focusing on the rights of women and migrant workers in the workplace. Thousands were expected to attend the rally, including members of more than 45 GFBTU-affiliated trade unions.
Burundi: Hundreds of journalists and human rights activists have been arrested and Internet has been inaccessible in the capital, Bujumbura, in recent days following protests against the re-election bid of President Pierre Nkurunziza. Some journalists have been “beaten up and workplaces forced to close down,” one journalist told allAfrica. Civil society organizations and political movements have been denied the right to hold public meetings and assemblies. The Confédération Syndicale du Burundi (COSYBU) and the Organization of Free Unions of Burundi (CSB) cancelled May 1 festivities because of the country’s insecurity.
Morocco: The Moroccan union movement is boycotting May 1 celebrations and instead turning May into a month of protest. The Moroccan Labor Union (Union Marocaine de Travail), the Democratic Confederation for Labor (Confédération Démocratique du Travail) and the Democratic Federation for Labor (Fédération Démocratique du Travail) and others will protest the lack of movement in improving civil servants’ salaries, increasing the minimum wage and boosting minimum pension, per an agreement with the government in April 2011.
Swaziland: Despite a ban on May Day rallies, the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) is encouraging members to turn out and “celebrate their day and not be prevented by actions that are at best unlawful.” Police announced that only “recognized unions” will be allowed to mark May Day. The authorities have refused to recognize TUCOSWA, and police have repeatedly broken up TUCOSWA meetings this year, injuring at least one union leader. “Our members are geared for their celebrations and will not be prevented by threats from the police,” says TUCOSWA Secretary-General Vincent Ncongwane.
Some Swazi pro-democracy activists and trade unionists have been imprisoned. Sign a LaborStart petition demanding their release. If you Tweet, use the hashtag #SwaziJustice.
Turkey: After hundreds of workers defied a ban on May Day rallies in Istanbul, riot police fired tear gas and water cannon on protestors in the city’s central Taksim Square. Unions had called on the government to lift its ban on “illegal demonstrations,” in Taksim. Much of Istanbul’s public transport is shut down and police helicopters are circling over the city.
Iraqi union members rally for changes to the country’s Saddam Hussein-era labor code. Credit: Wesam Chaseb Ouda
Union members in Bangladesh, Brazil, Iraq and Morocco were among Solidarity Center allies around the world who rallied, marched in parades and protested in the streets yesterday, marking May Day and the ongoing struggle to ensure workers have a place at the table in the larger global economy and at their workplaces.
In Brazil, UAW President Bob King joined the union Força Sindical at a May Day event with some 1.3 million workers. Iraq workers and their unions marched for passage of a revised law, now under debate in Parliament. Iraqi workers are still covered by a Saddam Hussein-era labor code.
Workers in Morocco celebrated the announcement of a 10 percent boost (over two years) in the minimum wage in the public and private sectors, an action spearheaded by trade unions. The minimum retirement pension also will be boosted, and student grants will increase. Workers say many improvements still must be made, however, and in rallies across the country challenged rising prices and high unemployment and called for social security coverage for all workers and respect for collective and personal freedom.
UAW Bob King (center, yellow shirt) joined Força Sindial and 1.3 million workers in Brazil. Credit: Solidarity Center
In Bangladesh, tens of thousands of garment workers turned out in events across the country. At the Jatiya Press Club in Dhaka, the capital, some 12,000 workers gathered, with many forming a human chain. Speaking at one event, Kamrul Hasan, president of Akota Garments Labor Federation, demanded workplace safety so garment workers never again die or become injured from factory fires or collapsed buildings, like Rana Plaza, which pancaked in last April, killing more than 1,110 workers.
In Gazipur, Bangladesh, women made up the majority of the 2,000 garment workers taking part in events sponsored by the Bangladesh Independent Garments Union Federation (BIGUF). Shumi, president of Masco Industries Ltd. (Knit and Composite) Workers Union, said thousands of workers turned out spontaneously this May Day to assert their rights to a union. Other Solidarity Center allies holding events include the National Garments Workers Federation’s (NGWF), the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation’s (BGIWF), the National Garments Workers Federation’s (NGWF) and the Bangladesh Federation of Workers Solidarity (BFWS).
Members of Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Federation marching today. Credit: Solidarity Center
More than 100 years ago, workers striking for an eight-hour day and living wages declared May 1 an annual date for international labor rights to honor workers and raise awareness of their struggles.
Around the world, many workers are still fighting for those basic rights. In Bangladesh, garment workers seeking to make their workplaces safe are forming unions, despite sometimes formidable odds, including violent attacks against workers and organizers.
Since last year, after the collapse of Rana Plaza and when garment workers began a serious push to organize and seek official recognition of their unions from the government, more than 100 unions have been registered. In the three years prior, only two unions were allowed to register.
“Now that we have a union, if (wage) payments are delayed, we can find out what the problem
is and work can go on,” said Rumi Akhter, a union leader. Rumi and her co- workers recently formed a union at a Weltex apparel factory in Dhaka, the capital (see video).
he Solidarity Center has been bolstering worker rights defense efforts in Bangladesh—including providing safety and health training, legal support and union building—for years. It recently established an emergency fund to help organizers and worker activists injured or otherwise harmed as they fight for better wages and working conditions. The country is one of dozens where the Solidarity Center assists local unions, worker centers and community groups to empower workers on the job and in civil society.
“In low-wage economies in general, companies find little reason to protect the rights and interests of workers—and corporate self-regulation has proven a faulty tool for ensuring healthy and dignified workplaces,” says Alonzo Suson, Solidarity Center Bangladesh country program director. “Without the relative strength of a union to represent them, vulnerable and impoverished workers cannot fight alone for their rights.”
May Day is a time to celebrate the historic achievements of trade unions. And as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) points out, it is especially a time reaffirm our commitment to organize workers everywhere and support their fights for: freedom of association and collective bargaining; mnimum wages on which workers can live; universal social protection; and safe, healthy and sustainable jobs.