Tunisia’s public sector to go on strike amid fears of ‘Black Thursday’

The strike was expected to affect the country’s ports, airports, hospitals, schools, transport services, ministries and other state-owned enterprises.
Thursday 17/01/2019
Noureddine Tabboubi Secretary General of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). (DPA)
Noureddine Tabboubi Secretary General of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). (DPA)

TUNIS - Tunisia's powerful labour union said that up to 2 million public sector workers and civil servants would go on strike January 17 after it failed to reach a deal with the government on wage increases and despite a call from Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi to prevent the stoppage by “all means necessary.”

“Because we did not reach an agreement, the union has called on its members to make the strike successful with the responsibility to respect public order,” Tunisian General Trade Union (UGTT) spokesman Sami Tahri said at a news conference.

Tahri said the government and union met for nearly 8 hours on January 15 but were unable to reach an agreement. Hopes that a meeting between Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine Taboubi the next day would end the deadlock were also dashed.

“They met for just 3 minutes. Their meeting was a courtesy encounter, not for negotiations,” Tahri said.

A chaotic scene broke out in parliament when UGTT-supporting politicians traded insults with the government’s backers. Leftist members of parliament sought to summon Chahed and UGTT leaders to avert the strike.

Chahed’s supporters and their allies in the Islamist Ennahda Movement, who together control a majority in parliament, dismissed the demand, drawing anger from leftist MPs who nearly came to blows with them.

Concern increased nationwide over the planned 24-hour strike, which has drawn comparisons to a work action January 26, 1978 — known as “Black Thursday” — that led to widespread riots and clashes in several cities.

“Tunisia faces another Black Thursday. The strike could lead to violence and chaos,” said leftist MP Salem Labiedh.

MP Samia Abbou, from the centre-left Democratic Current party, said: “Our responsibility as parliament is to protect Tunisia from strike and anarchy. The country’s social peace and security are threatened and we must not stay put and wait for the worst. We must summon the prime minister and UGTT here to push them towards a solution.”

The strike was expected to affect the country’s ports, airports, hospitals, schools, transport services, ministries and other state-owned enterprises.

While the government acknowledged the UGTT’s concerns over Tunisians’ decreasing purchasing power, it said it cannot agree to wage hikes because of pressure from international lenders to balance the budget and cut the deficit.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which made a $2.8 billion loan to Tunisia, warned the country to keep its public sector wage bill under control to avoid severe debt problems. An IMF study indicated that Tunisia’s public sector wage bill, relative to the size of its economy, is among the highest in the world.

Public sector salaries more than doubled from $2.5 billion in 2010 to $5.5 billion in 2018. The government hopes to cut the public sector wage bill from 15.5% to 12.5% of GDP by 2020.

Disbursement of the next IMF loan tranche depends on the conclusions of experts compiling an upcoming report.

Tunisia has been battling a worsening economic and social crisis since the ouster of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Unemployment shot up to 15.5% this year and inflation was reported at 7.5%.

In November, approximately 670,000 public sector workers went on strike and thousands protested across Tunisia demanding salary increases. UGTT officials turned down the government’s offer to increase wages by up to $60 per month. The UGTT sought monthly wage increases of $91.

“The government is making a fuss about its proposal of up to 180 dinars ($60). A third of that amount will go to the government as tax, another chunk will go for social security and the rest will be swept up by the soaring inflation,” said Tahri.

Many Tunisians expressed concern about potential repercussions of the strike amid the economic crisis ahead of elections in December. UGTT leaders, however, warned they are willing to fight to secure wage raises, even with another general strike that would include the private sector, effectively paralysing Tunisia’s economy.

“The general strike will be a turning point in the history of Tunisia and a watershed moment for the country,” Taboubi said at a rally January 14.

“We are defending not only the workers and the whole Tunisian people. We are defending the economic independence of Tunisia. They cannot give workers their rights because they take orders from abroad.”

Caid Essebsi, speaking at the opening of an exhibit on Tunisia’s Revolution Day January 14, acknowledged the country’s economic problems, including that “unemployment and poverty still persist and interior regions remain marginalised” but cautioned that a general strike would be a “disaster.”

“People who experienced the situation of the general strike in 1978 understand what I mean,” Caid Essebsi said. “The strike caused violence, loss of lives, imprisonment of people and the fraying of the national unity for dozen of years.”