What lies in store for Tunisian government in wake of protests?

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Article Summary
Tunisia’s powerful labor union held a nationwide strike, threatening to escalate the situation and hold another strike in February.

TUNIS — Tunisia’s powerful labor union, known as the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), announced Jan. 19 its plan to hold a general strike on Feb. 20-21 if they did not reach an agreement with Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s government on a salary increase for public servants.

The UGTT’s announcement foretells an escalating crisis with the Tunisian government, especially since a February strike would be the second one to be held by the union since the start of this year.

On Jan. 17, more than 670,000 government workers held a nationwide strike in light of the salary crisis. The strike, which was seen as successful, has disrupted the airport, transport sector and other public facilities like schools and banks.

Secretary-General of UGTT Nourredine Taboubi had said during the Regional Staff Symposium (a meeting for the UGTT representatives across the country’s governorates) Dec. 27 that the month of January would witness major developments, stressing that the union will carry out its warning of a general strike on Jan. 17. The warning was made on Nov. 24 to demand increases in wages for the public sector employees.

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Taboubi added during the meeting that the last negotiation session Dec. 25 on the increase in public sector wages between representatives from the government and the UGTT had failed. He said this was due to the lack of seriousness on the part of the government with regard to the proposals.

The agenda of the Dec. 25 talks focused on the implementation of a wage increase for public servants that the government has previously vowed to apply by Dec. 15. But so far, the wage increase by 205 to 270 dinars ($73-$97) has yet to take effect.

Assistant Secretary-General of the UGTT Sami al-Tahiri told Al-Monitor that the UGTT is sticking to its demand for a raise of no less than the already agreed upon 205 to 270 dinars increase.

On the other hand, Minister of Social Affairs Mohamed Trabelsi said in a Dec. 27 statement to the private radio Shems FM that the government has submitted a proposal to increase public service wages by 40 to 80 dinars (about $14-$27).

The UGTT had already carried out Nov. 22 a general strike, which saw the participation of thousands.

On Dec. 21, Chahed told the private Attessia TV channel, “It is not in our intention to defer [the issue of] wage increases. All we are seeking to do is to save public finances in light of the exceptional [economic] circumstances.”

For its part, the Tunisian Order of Lawyers led a series of protests in Tunis Dec. 20, in a flat refusal of chapter 36 of the new finance law. The new law forces liberal professions, which include lawyers, doctors and notaries, to disclose their salaries as part of the government's efforts to increase tax revenue.

Consequently, the Provisional Authority for the Control of the Constitutionality of the Draft Laws (known by its French acronym, IPCCPL) accepted Dec. 26 an appeal against the finance law and referred it to parliament for reconsideration.

Meanwhile, the General Syndicate of Secondary Education, which is leading the teachers’ protests, renewed in a statement Dec. 22 its call to increase the salaries of teachers, reform the educational system, lower the retirement age for teachers and increase bonuses for teachers.

The Ministry of Education refuses to raise the wages of teachers under the pretext of the bad economic situation, and it threatened to deduct from the salaries of the teachers who took part in strikes.

Students of government educational institutes did not complete their first trimester exams for this academic year as the teachers had boycotted them. The move came in response to the General Syndicate of Secondary Education’s call Nov. 5 to boycott the exams that are carried out Nov. 26-Dec. 8.

In response to the Education Ministry’s threat to deduct salaries of teachers, the syndicate called for strikes in all education centers affiliated with the ministry across the country’s governorates.

The syndicate also declared Dec. 12 as “a day of wrath” and carried out protests across 24 governorates. Another day of wrath was held Dec. 19, when around 50,000 teachers gathered in front of the Ministry of Education and held a sit-in.

The syndicate said in a statement Dec. 24 that it will continue to boycott the exams in the second and third trimesters, and they will hold more protests on Jan. 9 and Jan. 23. The statement added that teachers will gather in front of the Ministry of Education on Feb. 6 to continue calling for their demands.

Assistant Secretary for the General Syndicate of Secondary Education Najib al-Salami told Al-Monitor that the syndicate will continue to boycott classes until serious talks are carried out that meet the teachers’ demands. He considered the minister’s threats as futile and will only push teachers to further adhere to their demands.

For his part, Abdel Jabbar al-Madouri, a political analyst and media figure, told Al-Monitor that Chahed’s government is faced with a terrible dilemma. It cannot increase wages given its commitment to the International Monetary Fund to reduce public spending, while it has at some point to yield to the protesters’ demands.

“The government will likely collapse under the pressure of the social and union movements and protests,” he said.

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Found in: Labor Issues

Mohamed Ali Ltifi is a Tunisian journalist who has worked with several local and international newspapers, including the London-based Arabic-language Al-Arabi al-Jadeed and Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism.

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