Tunisia’s strikes reflect policy deadlock, need for new social contract

A new nationwide strike is expected to affect all government services and state companies on January 17.
Sunday 25/11/2018
Showdown. Tunisian protesters chant slogans during a general strike in Tunis, on November 22.    (AFP)
Showdown. Tunisian protesters chant slogans during a general strike in Tunis, on November 22. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia finds itself at a turning point as trade unions are ratcheting up their pressure on the government through successive strikes aimed at buttressing their demands for public service wage increases.

A new nationwide strike is expected to affect all government services and state companies on January 17. The country’s 673,000 civil servants observed an earlier strike on November 22, the first of its scope in years, to protest the government’s rejection of pay hikes.

Several governments have come and gone in Tunisia during the last eight years without managing to pull off a much-needed economic recovery to match the country’s relatively successful democratic transition.

Reluctance to introduce reforms has brought the day of reckoning closer as the government cannot continue its big spending policies and hiring of unemployed graduates in large numbers in the public service without increasing budget deficits and soaring debt.

Social and political instability have contributed to economic stagnation and a productivity decline, sparking high inflation and demands for wage hikes.

In a break from previous governments that tried to meet the trade unions’ demands for wage hikes to ensure social stability, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed turned them down. Chahed chose to preserve key understandings with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over loan-related conditions, which include keeping the public service wage bill under control.

In 2016, the IMF granted the North African country a $2.72 billion loan over four years against a pledge to carry out needed reforms.

Financial experts say satisfying the demands for public service pay rises would have widened their proportion of the country’s gross domestic product, expected at 15.5% this year.

Adding to the uncertainty, leaders of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) have now vowed to press the wage issue in the next elections and join the fractious political fray.

UGTT’s leader, Noureddine Taboubi, told a crowd of supporters gathered outside the parliament on November 22 that the next legislative and presidential elections “are of concern” to the unions.

“With this huge popular support we will reset the political compass of the country,” he said in reference to the UGTT’s possible alignment with anti-Islamist forces.

Parliament members from the leftist Popular Front and secularist Nidaa Tounes parties joined Taboubi as he addressed the crowd while Islamist MPs and their allies in a political coalition of secularists backing Chahed stayed away. The moves draw a demarcation line of the political divide ahead of the elections next year.

Analysts said Taboubi’s announcement of electoral ambitions has been short in detail and will be further clarified after negotiations with the political actors.

Political writer Marouen Achouri cautioned that the UGTT could lose its role as a “factor of stability” and expose itself to “the danger of becoming another political party in disguise whose main aim is to grab the most benefits for its members.”

Others, however, see the potential political draw of the unions. “We must recognise that no other political party in Tunisia can master the UGTT’s strength and organisation,” said political writer Sarra Hlaoui.

Many Tunisians lump the UGTT in with discredited elites in the country who are seen as part of the problem and not the solution.

“The political parties and the UGTT are responsible for the crisis,” said economist and former Finance Minister Houcine Dimassi. “Parties and the UGTT are driving the country towards its ruin.”

The latest strike has also brought to a head a process sparked by the cancellation of the old social contract that had prevailed in Tunisia since independence. At the same time, it has highlighted the need for a new social contract where the freedom to strike and protest are matched by better economic productivity and greater initiative, especially with the state becoming increasingly unable to ensure previous entitlements.

A few days before the November public service strike, a number of local business federations announced they would not be paying their electricity bills to the public utility company because such bills eat away too much of their margin of profit.

“Tunisia needs a new social contract between all the sides to production but the current political juncture is not appropriate for that, as we are in an election year where conflicts and divisions worsen,” said influential political columnist Zied Krichen.