May Day in Tunisia – what you’ll see and what you will not see

Protests are planned today in Tunis and other major cities to celebrate labor day. If the protests follow the story arc of other recent protests led by opposition groups, the headlines this evening will talk of the mobilization of Tunisia’s opposition, whether the government is prepared to deal with workers’ issues, and the continuing frustration many  Tunisians feel about their economic fortunes.

While Ennahdha has called on its supporters to join the protests in an effort to neutralize this potential bad publicity, the move has the potential to backfire. Opposition groups, angry at the violent crackdowns during recent protests, will be none too pleased to share the stage with supporters of the very regime that cracked down on them. The potential for confrontation is real.

Photo-journalists will ensure that any violence is captured and broadcast around the world; the headlines will scream of further clashes between the opposition/secular forces and the Islamists – with some Salafis thrown in for good measure.

But a far different story is playing itself out across cities and towns across the country. This is a story one is unlikely to see in the newspapers. It is the story of Ennahdha’s massive mobilization and organization that is taking place all across the country. While opposition parties debate in the halls of Tunisia’s big cities, most small cities have one political party – Ennahdha. In a recent trip north of Tunisia, I was struck that every city I went to had an Ennahdha office that was large, open, and active. Opposition offices were invisible. This was true before the elections, when secular parties were crushed, and it remains true today.

Opposition parties remain fragmented, weak, and unable to reach out to ordinary voters.

It is likely that Tunisia’s opposition movement will congratulate itself tonight after what they perceive is a groundswell of support they received in Tunis today. They will read headlines in the Washington Post or Le Figaro and know that the world is watching their struggle. They are correct that many Tunisians are frustrated at the government and its ability to change things quickly. They are correct that the world is watching. But they are mistaken if they believe that marching downtown today will suffice to reach their voters. The lessons of October’s defeat have not yet been learned by Tunisia’s opposition.

More on Labor and Employment in Tunisia

I’ve written previously about how Tunisian labor unrest is a key risk to Ennahdha (see here and here). Two stories today suggest that problem isn’t going away, with demonstrations in Sousse and the government admitting that there are too many public sector workers.

Tunisia Live reports today of a large demonstration in Tunisia’s second city, Sousse.

A demonstration in support of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) was held today in Sousse, a city located in the central-eastern coast of Tunisia. Nearly a thousand protesters were holding up signs and chanting slogans in a massive show of solidarity with the union. The protesters directed their ire against the government and particularly Ennahdha – the dominant, Islamist party in the ruling tripartite coalition.

Today’s protest was in large part a reaction to Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s recent controversial remarks on last Saturday’s UGTT-led demonstrations condemning  a series of vandalistic acts against several of its offices.

Jebali stated earlier this week that “Ben Ali militias” – eager to see the new government fail – had infiltrated last week’s protests.  According to the Prime Minister, “businessmen” from Sousse and “Ben Ali militias” had coordinated their efforts and transported supporters by bus from the coast to Tunis in order to disrupt public order.

Meanwhile, Tunisie Numerique reports the Tunisian minister for administrative reform called for transparent recruitment into the civil service, while admitting that there are too many public sector workers.

Mohamed Abou,  Minister for Administrative Reform, said that the public sector can not absorb all the 750,000 unemployed Tunisians, underlining the government’s commitment that all competitive recruitment processes transparent and neutral.

…Mohamed Abou said that 580,000 public servants work in the public sector, a number greater needs of the Tunisian administration. He said that in the future promotions will no longer be more based on political party allegiance or nepotism, but according to a new system, primarily on a competitive basis.

The article goes on to talk (obliquely) about the corruption rackets common on Tunisian work sites:

Regarding the issue of workers’ sites, the Minister stressed that while 57 000 workers was the number provided to the Department, in 2010, the actual number does not exceed 16 000 workers.

Journalist Eileen Byrne “broke” the story of these worker sites last month in an excellent article in the Guardian.

Around 18,000 people are now estimated to be registered in chantiers across the Kasserine region. They are each paid about 250 dinars ($166) a month out of public funds. Corrupt foremen handing out the wages take upwards of 50 dinars ($33) off each person, local people confirm. If the worker stays at home, the foreman may skim as much as 100 dinars ($66) off the pay packet, and he also pads out the payroll with non-existent workers.

Government recognition of these problems is one thing, but amid growing labor unrest, they may prove difficult problems to solve.

Is Tunisia labor unrest a threat?

[Today’s article is a follow up to last week’s piece: Tunisia’s compact with labor is broken]

Tunisian labor unrest continues to tear at Tunisia’s new social compact with municipal workers staging a four day strike. This week’s strike, called by Tunisia’s largest union, the Union Generale de Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), has already caused significant service disruptions for Tunisians. In particular, garbage collection has been suspended, leading to very messy (and stinky) streets.

This week’s events occur just days after a major disruption at one of Tunisia’s largest employers, Leoni, which shut down briefly over ongoing labor disruptions. Battle lines seem to have been drawn between the ruling party, Ennahdha, and the powerful Tunisian unions.

Tunisia Live reported yesterday  that UGTT offices had been targeted for vandalism, and one office was ransacked and burned in restive Kesserine. Tunisian blogger Mohammed Ali Charmi  reports: “The Echab (people) newspaper, voice of the UGTT, announced in its page in facebook that syndicalist militants arrested three militiaman who tried to attack UGTT office in Manouba in the west of the capital Tunis.”

Tunisia Live goes on to say that “Shems FM quoted Sami Tahri, a spokesperson for the UGTT, as saying “this is a political act, well organized by the Ennahda movement.”

While the retraction of inflammatory statements like Mr. Tahri’s seems to be commonplace in post-revolutionary Tunisia, his remarks point to a more open battle between labor and the new government. Ennahdha has frequently cited strikes and sit-ins as a principal reason for job losses since the revolution. According to Ennahdha spokeman, Samir Dilou:

les perturbations ont occasionné, depuis la révolution, des pertes de l’ordre de 2,5 milliards de dinars, ce qui aurait permis de créer 80 mille emplois.

translation:

[labor] disruptions since the revolution have caused losses in the range of 2.5 billion dinars ($1.66 billion USD), which would have allowed the creation of 80,000 jobs.

The party has two principal goals in bringing labor unrest under control. The first is their goal of kick-starting the economy through new investment, something which depends heavily on the stability of the labor market. The second goal is to show Tunisians that they are capable of governing. Had the Leoni factory ceased operations last week, it would have been a major blow to the former. The strike of municipal workers threatens the latter.

Charmi sees the threat of conflict between unionists and Ennahdha as an existential threat:

In absence of serious opposition to Nahda and his intention to include Islamic laws in the constitution, many Tunisians see the UGTT as an alternative opposition especially with its capacity to mobilize the Tunisian street. Note that UGTT played an important role the Ben Ali regime fall in January 14th after in successful general strike in different cities. It participated also a movement of protestation that pushed Mohamed Ghanouchi government to resign and lead to the constitutional elections that brought Nahda to power in Tunisia.

Tunisia’s secular elites have largely focused on issues that, while important, are not bread and butter issues (freedom of speech, women’s rights, censorship). Tunisia’s unions, however, have the ability to mobilize massive numbers of Tunisians. As of last year, the UGTT had a membership of over 500,000 workers, making it a formidable force in Tunisian politics.

While it has historically aligned with the ruling party (to the detriment of its workers), its statements this week show that it is showing its independence. And why not? Its membership demands it. A municipal garbage worker brings home 120 dinars per month (less than $80, or about $2.5 per day). Many workers are dismayed that the party that says it represents all Tunisians, especially the poorer class, seems to be ignoring substandard working conditions and pay.

Ennahdha has been the beneficiary so far of working class support. But as it is forced to take a stand on policy more and more, it risks alienating its constituencies. One can already see support for Ennahdha peeling off toward more conservative Islamist groups. It will need to tread carefully on the issue of workers rights – it may very well be its Achilles heal.

Tunisia’s compact with labor is broken

Mateur Tunisia is home to a small factory that typifies Tunisia’s industrial base. The plant in Mateur is one of three owned by the  German cable company Leoni, which has taken advantage of Tunisia’s low wages and relative stability to set up shop and employ up to 14,000 Tunisian workers. The plant produces components for fiber optic cables and is part of Leoni’s global supply chain.

Recently, however, an ongoing labor dispute between Leoni management and the UTT, Tunisia’s second largest trade union, threatened to close Leoni’s Mateur operation and throw 2,700 workers on to the streets. While negotiations have recently resumed, sparing the workers (for the moment), the precarity of the situation is indicative of wider unrest in the Tunisian labor market. It also represents the biggest risk to the current government.

While Tunisian unemployment and strikes have been well documented in the last year, little reporting has focused on the nature of the strikes and just what it means to Tunisian and multinational businesses operating in Tunisia.

Labor unrest was not unheard of under either Ben Ali or Bourguiba. In the 1950s, as Tunisia gained its independence, Habib Bourguiba relied on labor support. He later co-opted Tunisian syndicates, in an agreement that assured that the union had a place at the table, but in return unions bargained away worker rights. Ben Ali continued with this model, and while strikes, particularly in the mining sector, were periodic, there was never any regime-threatening labor unrest under the dictatorship.

Tunisian syndicalism took on a new form with the uprising in 2010/2011. Unions cast their support with the protesters – a key -ans often overlooked aspect to the uprising’s success. The subsequent period of transition from January 14 to the installation of a new government in December last year saw labor unrest increase dramatically. It seemed that any half-way organized union or guild went on strike. The airports, trains, utilities, and ministries all were affected by strikes. The police force, the enforcers of Ben Ali’s regime, were ironically some of the first to gain concessions from the government. Even workers in Tunis’s medina went on strike to protest the government’s feeble attempts to get tourists back in the souks.

While the government was in a position to acquiesce to demands from public sector (and state-owned enterprise) workers, private businesses were on their own to negotiate new contracts with their employees. While some firms were able to offer concessions to workers, a credit crunch from Tunisian banks and uncertainty in Europe narrowed the options for most businesses.

What was perhaps most critical was the “democratic” nature of the strikes. Many Tunisian workers went outside of their labor unions to protest employment practices. After a half-century of collaboration with the ancien regime, Tunisian workers felt that wages and benefits had been artificially kept low for too long. This represented a major change for business managers, who no longer knew with whom to negotiate.

The rules of the game shifted.

Some managers I’ve spoken to, who generally had good relations with their employees, were terrified that a rogue group could shut down their operations. They also believed that making concessions would not stop the problem, but only encourage more workers to use rogue strikes as a tool for negotiations.

It appears that this may have been the situation with Leoni, which stated, according to Tunisia Live, “this decision has been taken due to the impossibility of ensuring a normal continuation of operations at Mateur.”

Leoni is not the first foreign enterprise to consider ending operations in the country. Yazaki, a Japanese cable and wiring company, also ceased operations in southern Tunisia last year; negotiations are still underway this week between the Tunisian government and Yazaki to enable the return of normal operations.

Jeune Afrique reports that 170 foreign firms ended or partially ended operations in Tunisia last year. Tunisia experienced a 29 percent drop in foreign investment during the same period.

The social contract between capital and labor in Tunisia is broken. Tunisian unions feel the need to show their bona fides in the face of skeptical members, and managers do not feel that negotiations are being done in good faith. And the government has been reluctant to do anything about it.

As I’ve noted previously, Ennahdha has a generally neo-liberal economic worldview. They have promised greater globalization and are looking to further liberalize Tunisia’s economy. Some members of Ennahdha appear to hold extreme anti-labor views, with one radical member calling for protesters to be crucified. While foreign investors would be happy to see the situation stabilize, its unlikely that the death of their workers is in their interests.

Unions are skeptical of the government’s intentions. However, in this highly unionized workforce, the government cannot attract foreign investors without engaging the unions.

Meanwhile, the government is frantic to get Tunisian employed. A report today from the Financial Times states that the government is looking  to negotiate greater Tunisian immigration to Europe:

Mr Dimassi (Tunisia’s Finance Minister, Ennahdha ) says the government has been trying to convince European authorities to allow for “organised immigration” to the European Union to take some of the pressure off.

Increased emigration may help, but it seems a rather dramatic solution for the most fundamental issue in post-revolutionary Tunisia.

The FT goes on to explain various formulas the government is considering to create greater employment. This is a bit like adding a prosthetic arm to a patient that is still hemorrhaging. You need to stop the bleeding first. The proposed solutions, increased aid to young graduates and more government jobs are exactly what the former regime did in the weeks preceding the revolution. Ben Ali promised hundreds of thousands of jobs – but the promise was empty – because the system was broken and needed reform.

In order for growth to resume and investment to return, Tunisia needs to have a compact with labor that assures union rights, while forming credible mechanisms to resolve negotiations. Without it, the government just has promises and debt. Ennahdha has so far proved unable to to negotiate this compact but its survival depends on it.