Citing dangerous work conditions and inadequate wages, an imminent call-center strike was announced this week by French union Solidaires Unitaires et Démocratiques (SUD), with the Moroccan Labor Union (UMT) and Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT). The strike will target all company sites in France, Morocco and Tunisia on March 24 and 25, said the unions in a joint statement.
Are endangered by insufficient personal protective equipment, including masks, inadequate social distancing and a requirement that they share workstations—including headsets and computers—without adequate cleanup between shifts
Have their salaries withheld for refusing to work under such unsafe conditions
The strike announcement also calls for wage increases, given Teleperformance’s profitability and the risks faced by workers.
When the Tunisian Parliament this summer approved a law increasing the percentage of people with disabilities in civil service, union activists and their allies in the disability rights and human rights movements took a moment to celebrate the victory—and to reflect on the five-year advocacy campaign it took to achieve this goal.
“By paying attention to the issues of people with disabilities, working on more information and support for them, and considering their rights an integral part of the human rights system, people with disabilities are able to make valuable contributions to their communities if opportunities are available to them,” the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) said in a statement.
The new law stipulates that no fewer than 5 percent of annual public service assignments for workers with a college degree who have been unemployed for 10 years are allocated to differently abled workers.
Unions, Civil Society Coalition Key to Success
A broad-based partnership with key disability rights activists fueled the campaign’s success. With Solidarity Center support, a 10-member leadership committee of differently abled workers from the UGTT and the Arab Forum for Persons with Disabilities, and a prominent civil society activist steered the project. The committee, half of whom were women, conducted train-the-trainer sessions with union leaders and representatives of organizations focused on the economic and social integration of workers with disabilities who, in turn, held similar trainings across the country.
“The rights of persons with disabilities are an integral part of the human rights system,” says Moanem Amira, assistant secretary general in charge of civil service unions, and coalition partner. Universal Human Rights frameworks, such as the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, establish the right of those with disabilities to decent work without discrimination or exclusion.
Building on internationally guaranteed rights, the coalition strategized with workshop participants around the country on crafting campaigns for passage of national legislation. The coalition organized awareness days, including those that focused on the role of unions in reaching workers with disabilities, and mobilized them to achieve their economic and social rights. Workers and rights activists went on to champion the socio-professional inclusion of individuals with disabilities in the workplace and connect with government representatives to monitor and follow up on violations against workers with disabilities.
Dozens of workers with disabilities joined unions throughout the campaign through the outreach of activists such as Nabil Moumni. From his home in Gabes, in southeastern Tunisia, Moumni interviewed workers with disabilities in the public and private sectors to better understand their working conditions, held trainings and shared with workers the benefits of forming unions to achieve their rights.
A disability rights activist since 2012, Moumni says his involvement in the project and the hard work of those involved inspired him “to be a more enthusiastic as an activist.
“Everyone who took part in this project did their very best to reach important outcomes, because now awareness of human rights among trade unionists has reached a stage of maturity that makes the UGTT a locomotive for advocating social issues in Tunisia,” he says.
Early on in the campaign, the coalition conducted a first-of-its-kind survey to examine how workers with disabilities and unions can address discrimination and lack of accessibility for workers in Tunisia. The survey surfaced the immense obstacles workers with disabilities face in finding good jobs. In particular, women with disabilities are challenged by the double burden of sexism and ableism. Sexual harassment, violence and other forms of abuse mean job opportunities can be both scarce and exploitative.
So even while celebrating passage of the new law, coalition members say they are planning to continue working to ensure workers with disabilities can exercise their rights—and already are organizing awareness-raising and advocacy campaigns and building a regional network to support workers with disabilities who can take part in improving their rights at work and in their communities.
The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) is calling on employers and the government to join with it in addressing the severe challenges textile workers are facing during the COVID-19 crisis and negotiate an action plan to guide the struggling garment sector.
Some 160,000 workers, the vast majority of whom are women younger than age 35, work in Tunisia’s textile industry, which accounts for 34 percent of the country’s manufacturing sector. Following the country’s coronavirus lockdown, workers lost jobs and pay, in part because the industry experienced a 45.2 percent decline in textile exports in March from the previous year, according to the National Institute of Statistics in Tunisia. Many corporate brands also canceled “mid-season” orders.
But crucially, employers also took advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to cease or suspended paying workers’ social security benefits or family allowances, such as food tickets, under the pretext of force majeure, union leaders say. Employers coerced workers, especially new employees, into signing fixed-term contracts and giving up their status as permanent workers. Workers also say some employers blocked their efforts to form unions to gain fundamental rights on the job, closed union offices—prohibiting workers from meeting in the office even outside working hours—and removed posters and other legally placed union material from worksites.
Habib Al-Hazami. Credit: General Federation of Textile Leather and Footwear
“All trade union activists and the General Federation affirm that the garment and textile sector in Tunisia has been marginalized and is facing a crisis,” says Habib Al-Hazami, general secretary of the General Federation of Textile, Leather, and Footwear.
In April, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and the Tunisian Federation for Industry and Trade entered into a landmark agreement on workers’ wages, including textile workers’ wages. The government agreed to contribute $73 per worker, with the remaining salary paid by employer. Employers also agreed to register unregistered workers with the National Social Security Fund within a month after the agreement to ensure they are eligible for social benefits.
Although the lockdown ended June 27 and many factories resumed nearly full production, union leaders say worker rights’ violations persist, with factories not following government regulations to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In calling for discussions with employers and the government, UGTT is seeking to:
Strengthen job security for garment and textile workers by reducing short-term contracts and increasing formal employment.
Examine how best to restructure the sector with a focus on ethical market competition so workers do not bear the brunt of corporate brands’ rush for products at the lowest cost.
Take urgent steps to end gender-based violence and harassment at work and ensure decent working conditions.
Increase workplace inspections to monitor potential safety and health violations.
Create space for workers to form and join unions so they have a voice on the job.
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.
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.
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