For the second time this year a leader of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) was arrested, this time for suspicion of insulting a public official at a protest outside the country’s Ministry of Culture building. The arrest of the UGTT’s secretary for culture, Abdel Nasser Ben Amara last month—who has since been acquitted in court—is having a chilling effect on union work in the country and their efforts to represent workers’ interests, say unions.
The UGTT with civil society organizations last year convened a national initiative for the restoration of democracy after more than 90 percent of the country’s voters stayed away from Tunisia’s widely criticized December 2022 parliamentary elections. Workers last month took part in a series of rallies across the country to protest the government’s increased aggression against the union and its members, including arrest of general secretary of the highway workers’ union, Anis Kaabi. On Saturday more than 3,000 people joined a UGTT-organized rally calling for the government to accept “dialogue.”
Union members who legally exercise their rights in Tunisia, such as the freedom to strike, have been increasingly targeted, according to data from the UGTT, which found that the percentage of cases filed against union members rose in 2022, with a quarter of them directed against women. The government through February had filed more than 60 cases against union members for exercising their internationally recognized labor rights, according to UGTT, which says the numbers indicate a stepped-up effort to diminish the union’s power and turn public opinion against it.
The UGTT, which represents more than 1 million members, in 2015 shared a Nobel Peace Prize with three other civil society groups for promoting national dialogue in Tunisia.
Global labor unions and the international human rights community are denouncing the arrest in Tunisia of a top leader in the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT).
Anis Kaabi, general secretary of the highway workers’ union, was arrested January 31 after leading a strike by toll booth workers. A coalition of 66 human rights groups and Tunisian political parties denounced the action, calling it a “desperate attempt to criminalize union work.”
Kaabi was charged with causing financial loss to a state-owned company because of the strike. A court hearing is set for February 23.
Toll booth workers walked out to urge the government to renegotiate the contract for the biggest highway link in the North African country, which is mired in economic crisis.
For months, the Tunisian government has been negotiating a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to shore up the country’s rapidly deteriorating economy, but the IMF often conditions such support by demanding curbs on state spending and austerity measures like cutting subsidies for the country’s poorest.
Union members who legally exercise their rights in Tunisia, such as the freedom to strike, have been increasingly targeted, according to data from the UGTT, which found that the percentage of cases filed against union members rose in 2022, with a quarter of them directed against women.
Already this year, the government has filed more than 60 cases against union members for exercising their internationally recognized labor rights, according to UGTT, which says the numbers indicate a stepped-up effort to diminish the union’s power and turn public opinion against it.
Workers are taking part in a series of marches across the country through March 11, after the UGTT approved the actions to protest Kaabi’s arrest and in light of the government’s increased aggression against the union and its members.
In January, UGTT, the Tunisian Human Rights League and two other organizations launched a National Salvation Initiative to offer a “rescue initiative” to the president to find solutions to the economic and political crisis in Tunisia, including the growing consolidation of the presidency and the closing space for civil society.
Following Kaabi’s arrest, UGTT Secretary General Noureddine Taboubi said President Kaid Saied is “trying to divert attention” from the election result and “the utter failure of his economic and social decisions.”
Public employees across Tunisia won a 5 percent wage increase over three years plus financial benefits through revisions of the tax code, following a general strike and weeks of difficult negotiations, according to the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT). The agreement also increases the guaranteed minimum wage by 7 percent.
“Our objective through this agreement is to establish social peace and to ease the tense social climate, in view of the very difficult social situation and the deterioration of purchasing power,” UGTT General Secretary Noureddine Taboubi told Agence France Press.
The agreement restores key union rights by guaranteeing the right to free collective bargaining negotiations. UGTT had called on the government to adhere to a December 2021 agreement in which it will negotiate with unions on policies affecting workers.
Workers protested deteriorating economic conditions and government efforts to freeze public employee wages, part of the government’s attempts to secure financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF recently indicated the loan is expected to be between $2 billion and $4 billion over three years.
Solidarity Center works closely with the UGTT which, with its nearly 1 million members, continues to fight for their democratic freedoms in difficult conditions as workers join together and negotiate collectively over their pay, working conditions and workplace decisions.
Hundreds of thousands of public employees across Tunisia waged a one-day strike today after talks with the government failed to address the rising cost of living and sinking wages, even as it increases taxes and cuts social programs.
“The strike on June 16, 2022, is an opportunity for workers to affirm their unity, hold on to their rights, and defy the usurpation and threats, including unconstitutional and illegal burdens,” the Tunisia General Labor Union (UGTT) says in a statement.
At least 96 percent of public employees from 159 state institutions and public companies took part in the strike, according to the UGTT, which says the strike enabled workers “to express their anger at the deterioration of their working and economic conditions, the low wages and the threat to their livelihoods.” The UGTT, which represents nearly 1 million workers, says the government is “undermining the principle of negotiation and backtracking on previously agreed deals.”
Flights were cancelled as members of the Transport General union observed the strike. In Tunis, the capital, striking workers rallied at the UGTT building where they staged a sit-down strike, waving signs, “Do not neglect public institutions!” and “I love the country!” Members of organizations such as the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, Democratic Women, and the Economic Forum turned out to support striking workers.
Government Bailout at Workers’ Expense
Tunisian workers rallied at the UGTT building during the one-day general strike. Credit: Montasar Akremi / UGTT
The government is seeking a $4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for cuts in food and energy subsidies, wage freezes and privatization of state-owned enterprises.
The UGTT has rejected proposed spending cuts and, with year-over-year inflation at 7.8 percent in May, is seeking wage increases for public-sector workers. UGTT also is demanding that state-owned companies, including electricity and fuel, not be privatized and wants the government to adhere to a December 2021 agreement in which it will negotiate with unions on policies affecting workers. UGTT also is calling for the immediate, case-by-case review and reform of public institutions.
“The current government is determined to make [workers] bear the consequences of its choices,” UGTT says, citing the current and previous governments’ failure to address its financial crisis.
Global union organizations are backing the UGTT in its efforts to end the impasse with the government, with the AFL-CIO, the European Trade Union Confederation, IndustriALL and others sending letters of support.
Nabil El-Moumni, a Tunisian disability rights advocate and blind receptionist at the local hospital of Mareth, Gabes, advocated–and won–important changes at his workplace to accommodate both workers and patients with disabilities. At his urging, the hospital installed an access ramp and prepared illustrated signs to help people who cannot hear or speak access the hospital’s various departments.
“They can have access to that department’s services independently, without the help of strangers,” El-Moumni says in a new documentary, “We Are All Different,” on the experience of workers with disabilities in Tunisia produced by the UGTT (Tunisian General Labor Union) and the Solidarity Center.
“I am blind, and I want more independence in my work,” he says. “The phone numbers I work with are registered in numerical support. I read via text-to-speech. I prepared papers in large format.”
El-Moumni’s support for worker rights initially cost him his job. “After that,” he says, “I started a general strike in front of Gabe’s governorate.” He was reinstated on January 13, 2016.
A diverse group of workers with disabilities, from gardeners and street cleaners to municipal employees and athletic competitors, share their experience with discrimination and the barriers they face in the workplace, in their communities and in accessing government services and jobs due to accessibility limitations—both in public buildings and transportation.
Many also speak of the satisfaction they experience in their work, and the gains workers with disabilities have made in receiving protections and accommodations, and being empowered to advocate for their needs.
Kalthoum Barkallah, Solidarity Center acting country program director for North Africa, says the documentary “sheds light on the reality of persons with disabilities in order to build general public awareness and push public authorities, civil society and partners to take up their issues and defend their rights.”
The film debuted on International Day of Persons with Disabilities, December 3, 2021.
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