Tunisia’s Celebrated Labor Union Is Holding the Country Back

Tunisia desperately needs to reform its bloated public sector. But organized labor is digging in its heels.

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The economy of Tunisia is creeping, week by week, towards collapse. Growth is virtually nil, unemployment remains high, and the currency continues to sink. The most recent ill omen was the announcement that Tunisia’s government has asked for postponement of a debt payment it owes to Qatar. All this has experts talking about a potential default in 2017.

There’s more than enough blame to go around. A corrupt and nepotistic elite, a still-sluggish eurozone on which the country’s export sector is nearly entirely dependent, and a series of terror attacks that have crippled its tourism industry, a vital source of foreign currency, are all lead weights on the prow of the economy.

But there’s an economic albatross that few outside the country wish to address: Tunisia’s economy is also being pulled down by a bloated, lethargic civil service that has been faithfully defended by the Nobel-crowned labor union, the General Tunisian Labor Union (better known by its French acronym, UGTT). The army of functionaries, including employees of public utilities and mining companies, teachers, and municipal employees, reached nearly 800,000 in 2014, and this in a country with a total labor force of just over 4 million.

The UGTT’s role has long been larger than simply advocating for workers. It was an integral part of Tunisia’s anti-colonial independence movement in the 1950s, and as the only authorized labor union in post-independence Tunisia, it has at different times been a key ally and a bitter rival of the country’s dictatorial governments. In 2011, it helped organize protests during the uprising against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, and its star reached its apogee with the Nobel Peace Prize it received in 2015 for its part helping negotiate an end to a simmering political crisis within Tunisia’s fragile new democratic government. This outsized importance has given the UGTT a political and economic heft that it may not entirely know how to wield.

“[It’s] an organization that is very aware of its historical role. They think that they built Tunisia, so [the Nobel] gives them a sense of their role, but it’s a bit paralyzing, probably,” said Franck Bissette, who helped manage a World Bank grant to the UGTT.

Since the revolution, the union has burdened the Tunisian economy with general strikes in key sectors like the phosphate industry and the health sector and bargained for across-the-board wage hikes for government workers that have distended the public debt and fueled inflation. Public sector debt has gone from 40 percent before the revolution to 52 percent last year. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the money were being invested in things like roads and equipment, but thanks to the union’s efforts, more and more (nearly half of the budget last year) is going to wages and less and less to capital expenditure. The government has been saved so far by the decline in oil prices, which has reduced the burden of fuel subsidies, but if those prices rise again — as they are predicted to do next year — it could pose serious problems for Tunisia’s ability to service its debt.

On top of demands for more jobs and higher wages, the UGTT has also shown a willingness to use strikes as a political weapon. The union’s largest-scale recent strike, a general strike of the postal service, was exemplary of the aggressive strategy it has been pursuing.

According to the union, the strike started in response to the jailing of a postal employee in the southern city of Tozeur after he refused to hand over documents to an agent of the local court who had failed to properly identify himself.

There may well be a legitimate grievance concerning the sudden, summary manner of the postal worker’s arrest. But was it worth stopping the functioning of the country’s entire postal service? Slowing down mail delivery for a few days is damaging enough for an economy, but in Tunisia, the post also has other functions. Many of the country’s poorest keep their money in accounts at the post office rather than in banks. Because of the strike, these people were cut off from their retirement payments and remittances. This bellicose, politicized approach has struck some Tunisians as counterproductive.

“There are different means of protesting. You can wear a red badge to tell people you’re angry, you can stop working for half an hour, for example, and get back to work,” said Mouheb Garoui, the executive director and co-founder of I Watch, a non-profit government and private sector watchdog.

“We’re having a crisis and it’s a decay in people’s work ethic, especially after the revolution. Before the revolution you hardly heard of a strike in public service. Maybe it happens twice a year, three times a year, that’s it. Now it’s every day,” he went on.

Absenteeism is at its worst in Tunisia in the dog days of summer, when public sector workers are granted special shortened hours — up until early afternoon, but no later. With Ramadan and its daylong fasts falling in summer this year, even those hours seem to be too much for some civil servants.

“We all know that administrations, they close earlier than they are supposed to, they open later than they are supposed to. You go to the administration and its open but there’s no one there,” said Garoui.

This summer, I Watch has launched a campaign to send volunteers to see whether public service administrations actually stayed open until the reduced summer hours they advertised. The organization has not yet published its results, but the campaign has already raised the hackles of public servants. One professional organization, a union of graduates of the country’s most prestigious public service school, actually staged its own protest against the group. In a press release announcing the protest, it deplored civil society “interference” and called on its members to refuse to work with I Watch.

Nasser Nasser, the secretary-general of the union of administrative school graduates, had a novel explanation for why I Watch may have found civil servants not at their posts: Those who were absent were not real civil servants to begin with. His logic provides a striking glimpse into the mindset of some Tunisian government officials.

“The administration, since 2011, doesn’t just play the role of serving the citizen,” said Nasser, himself a head of department at the housing and planning ministry. “Today it plays a social role. It provides employment for people just for the sake of employing them, to pay them a salary and lower unemployment.”

He elaborated, “These people, they don’t find work in the administrations, it’s just a ‘job’ in quotation marks, fictional. It’s not filling a real need in the administration. This campaign, it comes and finds these people [absent] — they’re not really functionaries, they’re people who are there for the salary. It’s simple.” Campaigns like that of I Watch, he said, were “at the expense” of the real workers, hurting the image of the public administrator.

Odd as it may seem for a civil servant to be justifying the absenteeism of his colleagues with the argument that they are fictional employees, he has a point. Between the uprising and early 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the Tunisian government added nearly 200,000 jobs. It’s a complaint shared by nearly all sides of the labor issue in Tunisia, from activists, to economic experts, to heads of companies: Few of these jobs are productive. Even UGTT leaders admit this is a problem.

“The solution [to the economic crisis] is not to pile on more workers, to create fictional jobs,” said Sami Tahri, the deputy secretary general of the UGTT. Instead, he said, public spending should go to investment. The administration, he said, was standing in the way of investment: “[Another] thing to do is, to change the administrative system in Tunisia, because it is slow and bureaucratic. There is lots of paperwork, lots of administrative obstacles.”

These prescriptions may seem a bit rich coming from the UGTT, since it’s the union that has been behind the strikes that have led to the overpopulated and inefficient bureaucracies. If it seems like there’s a gap between theory and action, it might be because the union is not entirely in control of itself. “They don’t completely control their base,” said Bissette of the World Bank. “They have their leadership, things happen at the root level in the regions and they’re a bit overwhelmed, and they don’t always control what’s going on.”

Tahri acknowledged that there were differences of opinion in his organization.

“People think that the UGTT is a military union, with a strong leader who gives orders. It’s not like that!” said Tahri. “It’s natural that we have differences. An organization that didn’t tolerate differences of opinion would be a dead organization!”

But some analysts remain unconvinced that these divisions are producing only healthy internal debate. Ezzedine Saidane, an economic consultant who was formerly part of the executive committee of the ruling Nidaa Tounes party but has since left, felt the union was locked in a spiral of escalation.

“There’s what I would call an outbidding. People at the local level or at the sector level and the top management of the UGTT, they’re outbidding each other. Because they have their congress coming up soon, they have positions to defend, they have their image to defend and the interest of the country becomes very secondary,” said Saidane.

A sympathizer could argue that the UGTT was being blamed for doing its job: getting the best deal for its workers. But is the best deal for its workers the best thing for Tunisians? According to a 2014 study by the World Bank, only 36 percent of all working Tunisians were employed in the formal sector — so about two-thirds of those with jobs aren’t even eligible to be covered by the UGTT. Add to this the 15.4 percent of the labor force that is jobless, and it is clear that as long as the UGTT bears in mind only its members, it will represent a relatively privileged minority.

“You [the UGTT] are defending those who have jobs. What about those who don’t? In this way, you are really killing the potential for growth. And killing the potential for growth means what? Killing the capacity of the economy to generate jobs, to create jobs,” said Saidane.

It’s time for Tunisia’s historic labor union, with all of its nationalist credentials, to start acting a bit more in the national interest.

In the photo, unemployed Tunisians sit in el-Mourouj park in Tunis on February 9 after marching 400 kilometers from the city of Gafsa to demand work.

Photo credit: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

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