Tunisian civil servants’ strike underlines country’s quandary

Experts see a political backdrop to the mobilisation of trade unionists against the Chahed government a year ahead of presidential and legislative elections.
Sunday 25/11/2018
Mounting tensions. General-Secretary of the Tunisian General Labour Union Noureddine Taboubi gives a speech during the civil servants’ general strike in Tunis, on November 22.(AFP)
Mounting tensions. General-Secretary of the Tunisian General Labour Union Noureddine Taboubi gives a speech during the civil servants’ general strike in Tunis, on November 22.(AFP)

TUNIS - To further press its demands for public service wage increases, Tunisia’s main trade union announced on  November 24 its decision to launch a nationwide strike that includes all government services and state companies, for January 17.

Tunisian civil servants, representing a sixth of the country’s workforce of 4 million, had already staged the biggest strike in years on November 22 to protest the government’s unwillingness to accept wage hikes demanded by the powerful trade unions.

The strike by most of the 670,000 government employees paralysed services at ministries in the capital and other state bodies in big and small towns except for minimal emergency tasks in hospitals.

The walkout postponed debate in the parliament of the draft budget for 2019. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and other ministers stayed away from the parliament as thousands of employees gathered to hear leaders of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) lash out at the government’s “sell-off” to international financial institutions by not deciding to raise the salaries of government employees.

Defence and interior ministries worked normally and the government shut down schools and universities across the country to pre-empt turbulence.

The UGTT is demanding that government workers get pay rises similar to those granted last month to workers of state-owned enterprises and in the private sector earlier this year, from the equivalent of 15 to 30 euros ($17-34) monthly.

“It is a flagrant form of discrimination against public servants. We have families and children like other workers. We feel the pinches of inflation and rising prices as they do,” said 45-year-old Agriculture Ministry employee Salah Hammami as he waited with thousands of other protesters for UGTT’s leader, Noureddine Taboubi, to address them outside the parliament.

Economists blame successive governments since the 2011 upheaval that toppled the regime of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali for big spending policies that were not matched by measures to enhance growth.

“The workers and the people deserve better than that. We deserve a better treatment,” Taboubi told the gathering. ”People’s social gains do not come as gifts. We have to fight to get them,” he added.

”Shame on you that you rule Tunisia via orders coming from overseas,” he said in reference to the government’s acceptance of conditions tied to loan agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Financial experts are of the view that the country and the government are in a financial straitjacket that allows it no room to hike wages if it is to avoid the abyss.

“Any rise in wages will fuel inflationary pressures, and higher inflation will prompt the unions to demand more wage hikes and the county will plunge into a vicious circle,” said economist and former Finance Minister Houcine Dimassi.

Financial expert Moez Joudi said: “The state budget, the current financial resources of the government, economic indicators, the level of production and the productivity rate do not permit a rise in the public service wages.”

The renowned economist sees the crisis in existential terms.

”If we were to go down the road of increasing wages and more debt, we will end up selling off everything of value in Tunisia to pay back debts. Our country is dear to us and we are about to lose it now,” he added.

The IMF’s opinion matters a great deal for Tunisia. Loans received from the fund are conditional on reforms that include keeping public service wages under control to prevent further worsening of Tunisia’s debt problems.

On November 13, the IMF warned Tunisia that “it is very important for the government to maintain control over current spending and to maintain control over the wage bill.”

“This will allow them to achieve the fiscal targets they have set for 2019, and also this will reduce the additional pressures that increased spending will put on taxpayers,” it added.

In September, the IMF endorsed the payment of a $245 million instalment to Tunisia under a $2.8 billion loan agreement after talks described by local analysts as difficult because of the “mixed assessment” of the progress in some reforms mandated as conditions for the loan.

“If the head of the government, Youssef Chahed, was inclined in favour of populist stances and putting election interests above national interests he would have signed for the wage increases,” said government spokesman Iyad Dahmani.

“The easiest thing to do for him would have been to allow the salary hikes. But he preferred the defence of the national interests instead,” he said.

“The government is striving for a solution to the deterioration of the purchasing power of the working class and our hands are extended for dialogue with the trade union organisation. We do not blame it for practising its constitutional right.”

Experts see a political backdrop to the mobilisation of trade unionists against the Chahed government a year ahead of presidential and legislative elections. Leftists want to challenge the government’s vital ties to international financial institutions and the perceived support of such institutions to the neo-liberal policies of Chahed.

Experts also see in the strike the first sign of an anti-Islamist alliance including trade unions, leftist factions as well as members of the leading secularist party Nidaa Tounes who have remained loyal to the leadership of Hafedh Caid Essebsi, son of President Beji Caid Essebsi, in a face-off with dissident members backing the prime minister.

Inflation is likely to remain a thorny issue fuelling social discontent over the erosion of purchasing power and the deteriorating of the middle class’s standard of living, all against a background of economic stagnation and government instability.

The government expects inflation to drop to 6.1% in 2019 from an estimated 7% this year — the highest level in two decades. But critics say real inflation rates are much higher and demand a review of the criteria to calculate price trends.

Inflation rates also put a break on growth as businesses face declining revenues and find it more difficult to get loans and expand ventures.

The Central Bank increased its headline interest rate to 6.75% recently, causing borrowing costs for consumers and enterprises to increase to up to 12%.

The UGTT vowed to “escalate the battle” for wage hikes, meaning further turbulence may be brewing.

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