Tunisia’s public sector paralysed by nationwide strike

The strike is a test for the country’s nascent democracy and a personal challenge for Prime Minister Chahed.
Thursday 17/01/2019
Test for democracy. Noureddine Taboubi, secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labour Union, speaks to the crowd in Tunis during a nationwide strike against the government's refusal to raise wages, January 17. (Reuters)
Test for democracy. Noureddine Taboubi, secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labour Union, speaks to the crowd in Tunis during a nationwide strike against the government's refusal to raise wages, January 17. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Flights at Tunis-Carthage International Airport, trains and buses were at a standstill January 17 when Tunisia’s main trade union staged the first nationwide public service strike over pay in more than four decades.

The effects of the stoppage were worsened by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), which has more than 500,000 members, dismissing the government’s request that some of the workers keep working to ease repercussions on users of such public services as airline flights and hospital services.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s government issued a requisition decree for thousands of employees from approximately 20 state-owned enterprises, such as aviation, maritime, health care, garbage collection and forest surveillance, to report to work despite the strike.

“The government has to soak its requisition order paper in water and drink it up,” said UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine Taboubi as the union claimed “almost 100%” of the public sector workers and employees had walked out.

The chaos at the Tunis airport appeared to back the union’s claim.

“Officials told us that ten out of 50 flights will be kept, despite the strike,” said Hassan Riahi, an expatriate who said he waited for five hours for a flight to Marseille.

“I came at 5am from Siliana to take the plane. They told us our flight was maintained despite the strike but I can’t find anyone who can give me information about whether I must wait or go,” he said.

Tunisian law states that any employee who fails to respond to a government requisition to work faces up to one year in jail. The UGTT urged its members to ignore the order, arguing that only the Tunisian president is entitled to issue such an order.

“We will clip your wings,” said Taboubi defiantly in reference to Chahed’s political aspirations for elections next December.

Local media said the strike paralysed activities in the public sector across the country, leaving bus and train stations and offices at ministries and municipalities without workers.

Only emergency services at hospitals were maintained. The military and police worked as normal because the Interior and Defence Ministries were spared by the strike.

UGTT members and their supporters from leftist opposition groups crowded streets near union headquarters in Tunis and other cities for rallies to display the union’s muscle, which its leaders promised to exert in the next elections.

The strike is a test for the country’s nascent democracy and a personal challenge for Prime Minister Chahed, who has charted a separate path from his former mentor, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.

Politicians, including Caid Essebsi, and many citizens expressed concern the strike could be another “Black Thursday,” in reference a general strike on January 26, 1978, that resulted in several protesters being killed during violent demonstrations and top UGTT leaders jailed in a massive crackdown.

Surprisingly, Chahed said the strike is a constitutional right for workers as part of “freedoms of expression,” even if he deplored its social and economic cost.

"We proposed an important raise in wages but it was rejected by UGTT. The nationwide strike will be very expensive but we cannot give more than our financial capabilities," Chahed said in an address to the country four hours before the strike began.

“We could have signed for any pay rise claim if we wanted to choose the easy solution to the strike but we did not because we have the best interests of Tunisia and its future generation in mind.”

The hefty pay increases -- $91 a month -- sought by the UGTT were projected to have severe repercussions on inflation, budget deficit and higher domestic and foreign debt. UGTT officials turned down the government’s offer to raises of up to $60 per month.

“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,” UGTT spokesman Sami Tahri said before the strike.

Chahed did not mention the government’s commitment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as an obstacle to raise wages but the UGTT has repeatedly cited the IMF link as “another example that Tunisia is losing its independence to decide freely its own economic policy.”

“It is not about pay raise. It is about the defence of Tunisia’s sovereignty,” UGTT officials repeated as they addressed workers’ rallies.

Tunisia struck a deal with the IMF in 2016 for a loan worth approximately $2.8 billion to address its ailing economy, with steps to cut deficits and trim bloated public services but progress has been slow.

Tunisia's economy has been in crisis since the toppling of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, with widespread unemployment and rapid inflation hampering growth.

The government aims to cut the public sector wage bill to 12.5% of GDP in 2020 from the current 15.5%, one of the world’s highest, the IMF said.

“The Interior Ministry has taken all the required measures to preserve public order and prevent any attempt to undermine and stain the constitutional right of observing a strike,” said ministry spokesman Sofiene Zaag.