Union Win: No Layoffs in Tunisia Private-Sector in COVID-19

Union Win: No Layoffs in Tunisia Private-Sector in COVID-19

Some 1.5 million workers across Tunisia’s private sector will not lose their jobs and will be paid during COVID-19-related closures, following a landmark agreement between the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA) and the government. Under the agreement, reached April 14, the government will contribute $70 per worker, with the remaining salary paid by employers. The pact covers workers in agricultural and maritime fishing; construction; metal, garment and shoe manufacturing; transportation; hotels and more.

UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine El-Taboubi commended UTICA, an employer organization, on its commitment to pay their full salaries to private-sector workers after the government’s one-time payment toward each worker’s salary. The agreement, backed by a government decree, results: For instance, 550 workers at the Kaschke Components Tunisie manufacturing firm were returned to the payroll.

“Solidarity must be demonstrated during times of genuine crisis like the current crisis facing Tunisia,” Taboubi says, noting that private-sector workers do not have have access to extensive social protection.

Union Members Across Tunisia Reach Out to Hard Hit Workers

The (UGTT), which represents 1 million members across the country, took action early on in the novel coronavirus crisis to assist workers. The confederation pledged to donate $35,000 to a special fund to combat the virus and called on workers to donate a day’s pay. It also joined with the Housing Bank and Ministry of Health to retrofit a social housing building into quarantine facilities for healthcare workers who test positive for COVID-19 to ensure that they receive proper medical care.

Across Tunisia, union members have collected in-kind donations and held fundraisers to help equip hospitals with essential protective gear and medical equipment, and with their unions and the UGTT, donated tens of thousands of dollars to local hospitals, especially to those in regions with few resources such as Jandouba regional hospitals and Sidi Bouzid regional hospital.

UGTT and its unions also are working to ensure workers know their rights during the crisis and are demanding safe and healthy working conditions for those who must remain on the job, pushing for employers to provide masks, gloves and other protective gear.

Tunisia Public Workers Win Wage Increases

Tunisia Public Workers Win Wage Increases

Nearly 700,000 public employees in Tunisia won a salary increase after waging mass actions for months, including a one-day general strike, in which they protested the erosion of their ability to support their families as their salaries failed to keep up with rising costs.

The agreement, announced today between the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and the government, will ensure workers directly employed by the government will get nearly the same  wage increase in 2018 and 2019 as those employed in public-private enterprises. Further details have not been announced. The agreement comes less than two weeks before UGTT was to launch its second two-day general strike on February 20–21.

High school teachers, who for nearly two months have boycotted exams to protest their poor wages and who yesterday waged a mass action at the prime minister’s office, will be covered under a separate agreement. The union’s Administrative Committee for Education will review the draft agreement tomorrow.

Even as public-sector workers struggle in Tunisia’s difficult economy, they also have been the target of wage freezes mandated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has demanded the government cut spending and balance the budget. The IMF and the government in 2016 entered into a loan program worth around $2.8 billion to address the country’s economic crisis.

670,000 Public-Sector Workers Strike in Tunisia

670,000 Public-Sector Workers Strike in Tunisia

Some 670,000 workers in Tunisia waged a nationwide one-day strike today to protest the government’s refusal to increase wages for civil servant workers. The strike follows months of intense negotiations between the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and the government, which refused to increase wages in 2019 because of its commitment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to freeze public-sector wages and spending and balance the budget.

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Hundreds of thousands of Tunisian workers pack the streets of Tunis for a one-day strike. Credit: UGTT

Workers began the strike at midnight. By morning, hundreds of thousands gathered at the UGTT headquarters in the capital, Tunis, and at regional offices across the country, rallying to cries of “We want employment, freedom, national dignity.” The UGTT says all public service workers took part in the strike, including workers from state-owned enterprises.

Public-sector wages have failed to keep up with rising prices, leading to a decline in purchasing power. The UGTT says the monthly minimum wage of about $128 is one of the lowest in the world, while Tunisia’s Institute of Strategic Studies says real purchasing power has fallen by 40 percent since 2014. The UGTT points out that private-sector workers have seen a 6 percent pay increase for 2019.

In addition, the government’s proposed $60 tax increase would severely impact workers’ wages, social security and the prices of consumer goods, UGTT Deputy General Sami Tahri said at a press conference yesterday.

Only one flight left the airport, and the strike affected ports, public transportation and central, regional and local administrations. Vital care at hospitals continued.

Tunisia struck a deal with the IMF in December 2016 for a loan program worth around $2.8 billion to address an economic crisis that includes high unemployment and stagnant wages. During negotiations with the UGTT, the government delegation withdrew many times to consult with the IMF, according to the global union IndustriAll.

Solidarity Center’s Barkallah Receives Top Union Award

Solidarity Center’s Barkallah Receives Top Union Award

Kalthoum Barkallah, Solidarity Center senior program officer and master trainer in Tunisia, this week received a lifetime achievement award from the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). The award, the nationwide union’s highest honor, is given to union activists for their dedication to union work and in recognition of their struggle in the defense of workers and human rights.

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The UGTT award is the union’s highest honor.

“We are enormously proud of Kalthoum and the great contribution she brings to the labor movement through her incredible dedication and accomplishments,” says Hind Cherrouk, Solidarity Center country program director for the Maghreb region. “Kalthoum’s expertise in nurturing and training new generations of leaders, especially women unionists, has ensured the labor movement in Tunisia and beyond is served by new, skilled union activists.”

Presented by UGTT General Secretary Noureddine Tabboubi, the award reads: “Honoring sister and union activist Kalthoum Barkallah in appreciation for her dedication and perseverance in support for union work.”

In conferring the award, Taboubbi noted Kalthoum’s popularity among the UGTT’s union structures from local to national.

“When I began the struggle for democracy, freedom and the rights of women in 1979, I never for a moment imagined that there would be a day when I would be recognized or honored for my part in realizing these noble objectives,” says Barkallah.

Building Women’s Leadership in Their Unions

Tunisia, ITF global union, worker rights, Solidarity CenterAs an activist with the Tunisian General Federation of Railways, Barkallah was first elected as a deputy general secretary in 1983, heading up training within the union. She later was elected deputy general secretary in charge of international relations. In the railways industry, Barkallah was known as the “iron lady” for her determination and struggle to challenge her male colleagues in a male-dominated sector to achieve equality and justice for all.

As an active union leader with the UGTT, Barkallah built on the gender empowerment training she began in the railway sector to reach union members in a variety of industries throughout Tunisia, championing women’s rights there and supporting her sisters beyond its borders.

Barkallah, who in 2006 was elected president of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)­–Arab Women’s committee, also recently received an award from the ITF Women’s Committee for her fight and struggle in support of women workers in the transport sector.

Throughout her decades of service to workers and their unions, Barkallah balanced both work and family duties, raising two sons who each now have their own children.

Tunisian Workers Celebrate May Day & Their Union

Tunisian Workers Celebrate May Day & Their Union

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.

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“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.

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“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

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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’

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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.

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