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2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - Tunisia

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 6 June 2012
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - Tunisia, 6 June 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fd8891e2b.html [accessed 29 November 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 10,480,000
Capital: Tunis

ILO Core Conventions Ratified:

29 (Forced Labour (1930))
87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (1948))
98 (Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining (1949))
100 (Equal Remuneration for Work of Equal Value (1951))
105 (Abolition of Forced Labour (1957))
111 (Discrimination in Employment and Occupation (1958))
138 (Minimum Age for Employment (1973))
182 (Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999))

Reported Violations – 2012

Injuries: 1
Dismissals: 9

Documented violations – actual number of cases may be higher

Introduction

The trade unions found themselves at the forefront of the popular protests throughout this decisive year in the history of the country. The Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT) played an essential role in the Jasmine Revolution, thanks to its thousands of activists experienced in the art of organising who supported the spontaneous revolt of the country's youth. As the only established social force it conveyed the people's demands to the transitional authorities, and then to the government set up following the first free elections in October. For 12 months the trade unions suffered the same repression meted out to the rebel movements, trade unionists were beaten and arrested in every region of the country, trade union premises were attacked. At the end of the year, the UGTT held its congress and elected a new executive.

Background

A thirst for freedom and social justice, soaring food prices and the hopelessness felt by the country's youth triggered the Tunisian revolution whose shock waves spread far beyond the country's borders. After the death at the beginning of January of Mohammed Bouazizi, the young street vendor who tried to burn himself alive on 17 December 2010, dissent spread rapidly across the country. The police repression was ferocious, but failed to save Ben Ali's regime. The former president was forced to flee on 14 January and take refuge in Saudi Arabia. Thousands of Tunisians tried to leave the country during the disturbances in which nearly 300 died. In the meantime the uprising in Libya led to an exodus of hundreds of thousands who sought refuge in Tunisia. In October, the first free elections in the history of the country to choose the members of the Constitutional Assembly were won by the Islamist party Ennahda. The party's leader Hamadi Jebali became Prime Minister. The President is Moncef Marzouki (a leftwing nationalist). Economic growth collapsed and unemployment has steadily risen. The Islamisation of society is evident, but fundamental socio-economic reforms have yet to be seen.

Trade union rights in law

A number of restrictions apply despite basic trade union rights being guaranteed. The Labour Code provides for the right to form and join trade unions, and unlike for associations, prior authorisation is not required to create a union. However, foreign nationals need prior approval by the authorities to have access to union office. Wages and working conditions are set in triennial negotiations between unions and employers after general guidelines are laid out through national tripartite consultations.

While the right to strike is guaranteed, unions must announce the duration of the strike in advance. Workers having participated in an unlawful strike can also face long prison sentences of between three and eight months.

Link to additional detailed information regarding the legislation on the ITUC website here

In practice

The quest for decent work:

The Ben Ali clan's stranglehold on the Tunisian economy meant there was little hope of any respect for labour legislation. Until the revolution, the authorities shamelessly plundered the country's resources, exploiting its workforce in every sector of activity. Once the regime fell, the social protest movement quickly turned a critical eye on this immoral system that relied heavily on keeping wages down to attract investors. The highly structured national trade union centre the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT) soon established itself as a key player in the transition process, negotiating pay rises and better working conditions with private and public employers.

In the coal mining region, teachers who had lost their jobs for participating in the events of 2008 were reinstated. A lot of progress was also made during the year towards eliminating sub-contracting in the public sector, giving legal employment status to the thousands of civil servants who had been exploited for years without a proper employment contract and developing a social security system worthy of that name.

Another big challenge facing the trade unions is the revision of the country's labour legislation, heavily slanted in favour of employers in the export processing zones, and the organising of workers in the zones.

Two new national centres: The Tunisian General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale tunisienne du travail – CGTT) which has been awaiting registration since 2006, officially began its activities during the year, as did the Tunisian Workers' Union (Union des travailleurs tunisiens – UTT). Both organisations advocate trade union pluralism, and their general secretaries are both former officers of the UGTT. The CGTT very quickly experienced internal divisions however, with several of its officers trying to overthrow the leadership. Given the tens of thousands of new members registered by the principal national centre, it would seem that the level of union membership among the working population was far higher at the end of 2011 than it was a year earlier.

No women in the new UGTT executive: The UGTT's new executive board elected at the end of 2011 does not include any women, even though they make up 47% of the organisation's membership, 60% in education and up to 70% in the textile industry. The UGTT has promised however to establish quotas for women's representation in its different structures. In March, the ITUC launch the Arab Women's Trade Union Network in Tunis, a communications network for the exchange of information and expert knowledge.

Violations

The important role played by the UGTT during the revolution:

Despite being frequently silenced and having to deal with the Ben Ali regime, the national trade union centre the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT) has managed to keep a popular base and a real mobilising capacity. The spontaneous revolt by the country's youth hungry for social justice was given the backing of the local and regional branches of the UGTT, who urged their sometimes reticent leaders to follow them. Local organisations played a driving role in coordinating the movement.

In the towns, UGTT premises often served as focal points, where activists issued calls to action and where the demonstrators began their marches. They also became targets, along with their occupants. In Kasserine, Youssef Abidi, a trade union official, explained how the police burst into the UGTT premises where rebel youths had taken refuge: "they set about hitting everyone and breaking everything".

Pressed by its grass roots organisations, the UGTT declared general strikes in three regions that had a decisive impact, forcing President Ben Ali to flee the country. On 18 January, the three UGTT ministers in the transitional government formed the previous day resigned in protest at the presence of members of the former regime and in response to the street demonstrations. The strikes and repression continued.

On 25 January, militiamen and thugs attacked the regional offices of the UGTT in Gafsa, Kasserine, Béjà, Monastir and Mehdia. The assailants were armed with clubs, stones, knives and chains. Popular protests continued, leading to significant changes in the government and the departure of figures tainted by the past. The Tunisian revolution left a total of 300 dead.

Police repress demonstrators leaving one dead and many injured, UGTT premises attacked: On 6 and 7 May the police violently repressed anti-government demonstrators in Tunis, striking many journalists and confiscating their materials, chasing demonstrators until they reached the UGTT premises in Avenue de Carthage, where they forced open the doors and attacked everyone inside. At least one person died and many were injured. On 9 May, journalists held their own demonstration, organised by the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (Syndicat national des journalistes tunisiens – SNJT), in the centre of Tunis to denounce the violence. Disturbances broke out in other parts of the country. In Metlaoui (Gafs) the headquarters of the local branch of the UGTT was burnt down. It all began when Fahrat Rajhi, a magistrate and briefly the Minister of the Interior, denounced the antics of Ben Ali's close allies and preparations for a military coup in the event of an Islamist victory in the October elections.

Repression of protesting journalists: At about two in the morning on 3 November, hunger strikers were violently evicted from the premises of the Dar Al Anouar newspaper in Tunis. The journalist Wafa Boujmil and the technician Salah Jaâfar were occupying the premises in protest at their dismissal. They had had no proper status. Also in November, the management of the private television channel Hannibal TV dismissed five journalists and two technicians for organising a sit-in to demand a revision of their contracts and better working conditions. The National Union of Tunisian Journalists (Syndicat national des journalistes tunisiens – SNJT) and the General Culture and Information Union (SGCI), affiliated to the UGTT, denounced their unfair dismissals and the restrictions that several media outlets placed on trade union activity. The SNJT also criticised threats and attacks on journalists on several occasions, as well as attempts by political parties to impose their control over the sector. It urged the authorities to guarantee freedom of the press in the future constitution.

Smear campaign against the UGTT:

The UGTT very quickly became the target of attacks after the flight of Ben Ali in January, particularly from big business. The economic press spoke out against attacks on the right to work and the trade unions' lack of patriotism in frightening off foreign investors. However it was the attacks on employment rights and the glaring lack of social justice that fomented the revolution. The UGTT leadership was also accused by members of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique – RCD), Ben Ali's party, of being behind the many strikes in order to create anarchy. The UGTT, on the contrary, had sought to channel the people's demands, calling on them to suspend their strikes in the run-up to the October elections.

At the end of the year the UGTT protested several times about a smear campaign against it by members of the Constitutional Assembly and malicious rumours circulating in the press and on social networks about its leadership. The name of the UGTT General Secretary was mentioned in several corruption cases. At the end of December, the organisation's Congress elected a new, very different leadership. The UGTT leaders recognised the organisation's past mistakes in supporting Ben Ali's candidacy in past presidential elections.

Finally the UGTT said it would strive for the organisation's independence from the government, political parties and all institutions, in defence of workers' demands.

Union activist hurt in Faculty of Arts protest: At the end of November university lecturers went on strike in protest at the occupation of the Manouba Faculty of Arts (Tunis) by a group of young religious fundamentalists who had interrupted classes and prevented exams going ahead. On 6 December the young fundamentalists prevented the dean from going to his office. This was followed by verbal and physical threats. Habib Mellakh, a lecturer in French and trade union activist, was injured and had to be taken to the casualty department. In the name of individual freedom, the protestors were demanding that women students who wished to wear the niqab (a veil covering the whole face except the eyes) should be allowed to do so during classes and exams, which was opposed by the scientific committee, made up of elected representatives of students and lecturers. By the end of the year the situation had reached stalemate, with the authorities refusing to listen to the request by the students and the dean to remove the 30 occupiers, of whom only five were enrolled in the faculty. Similar events occurred at other schools in the country, with teachers, particularly women, complaining of attempts at intimidation.

Two trade union leaders prosecuted: Hassen Ksibi, journalist and Assistant General Secretary of the General Culture and Information Union (SGCI), and Sami Tahri, General Secretary of the Secondary Education Trade Union (SES) went on trial on 22 December in Tunis. The former had published an article in which the latter had denounced corruption in the Ministry of Education. Sami Tahri stated that the trial was an attempt to destabilise the UGTT just before its Congress. The verdict was postponed until 5 January 2012. In a press release the UGTT spoke of a "harsh blow for the freedom of opinion and expression ... this act goes against the spirit of the revolution. It obstructs the dismantling of the corruption that became rife under the former regime."

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