Unemployment expected to soar in Tunisia, adding to risks of instability

Joblessness rate is likely to reach 21.1% in 2020, up from about 15% at the start of the year.
Thursday 18/06/2020
Unemployed Tunisian students sit on the steps of the theatre in Tunis on Habib Bourguiba Avenue. (AFP)
Unemployed Tunisian students sit on the steps of the theatre in Tunis on Habib Bourguiba Avenue. (AFP)

TUNIS- A Tunisian government study undertaken in partnership with the United Nations has made an alarming projection of a spike in unemployment in the North African country, whose economy has been severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Tunisian Investment Minister Slim Azzabi disclosed Wednesday that the number of unemployed people will increase this year by 275,000 in the 11-million nation.

This would raise the unemployment rate to 21.1% in 2020, up from about 15% at the start of the year.

Unemployment among university graduates, which is already at more than 30%, is expected to grow even higher as the government intends to freeze civil service hiring and the private sector will limit hiring because of the slowdown.

The study expects the Tunisian economy to shrink by 4.4%, but Azzabi said the figure could rise as high as 6% or 7%. Independent experts expect the decrease of GNP growth to reach about 10%

A large part of the GNP shortfall is connected to the dire performance of the tourism sector, which has been at a virtual halt since the pandemic outbreak.

To try to revive the stricken sector, the government has ended all restrictions on movement and businesses this month. It will also open its sea, land and air borders on June 27.

However, restarting hotel and travel activities is complicated by the reluctance of hotel executives to implement health protocols set by the government to combat the pandemic. Some found the measures “too restrictive” to attract tourists and not sure of the travel plans of their traditional European customers.

Most European countries and Algeria (the place of origin of nearly a third of Tunisia’s 9-million foreign tourists) have yet to lift their air travel restrictions.

Tourism contributes nearly 10% of gross domestic product and is a key source of foreign currency.

Tourism revenue in the first five months of this year fell by about 50% from the same period of 2019, as Western tourists deserted Tunisia’s hotels and resorts.

President Kais Saied hopes his visit to France Monday will further facilitate the travel of French tourists to Tunisia and allow for a new infusion of funds to his cash-strapped country.

The possible repercussions  of higher employment are a matter of concern for Tunisian officials and labour unions. Unemployment was one of the main drivers of the 2011 uprising that toppled the regime of longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and continues to be among the catalysts of protests in the country.

The UGTT, Tunisia’s largest labour union, rejected a recent warning by Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh that the government could be compelled this year to cut salaries of civil servants and retirees because of budget constraints.