Tunisian bakers strike over $80m in unpaid subsidies

An estimated 90% of the country's state-subsidised bread makers closed their doors on Wednesday

A bakery in Tunis. More than 3,000 Tunisian bread makers went on strike over overdue subsidies on Wednesday. AFP
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Thousands of Tunisian bakers began an open-ended strike on Wednesday, demanding the payment of overdue subsidies.

More than 3,100 bakeries — 90 per cent of the country's state-subsidised bread makers — closed their doors on Wednesday, the national bakery owners' union said.

“We will continue our strike since we have not received any positive response from the government,” union chief Mohamed Bouanane told AFP after a meeting with officials at the Commerce Ministry.

The protest action comes less than two months after a similar strike, with bakery owners now demanding the payment of 14 months of overdue subsidies, which the union estimates at 260 million dinars ($80 million).

It follows a strike by Tunisian wholesale medicine distributors, who suspended their distribution activities on Monday in a move health professionals believe will lead to shortages of vital drugs.

Subsidies on basic goods are a highly sensitive political issue in Tunisia, where a public finance crisis has caused repeated shortages of subsidised flour, sugar and other basic goods.

Mr Bouanane said the government, which had promised but failed to cover four months of the unpaid subsidies, had indicated it would only begin to make gradual payments of the overdue compensation in January.

A government press service contacted by AFP did not respond to a request for comment.

One striking baker said he was struggling to maintain his business.

“We can no longer continue to work; we are unable to pay our workers and all our costs,” he told AFP. “The government must pay us.”

Bakery owners in Tunisia are demanding the payment of 14 months of overdue subsidies. AFP

A strike in October was suspended the day it began following state promises to pay bakers about $24 million, which Mr Bouanane said had not happened.

Nearly 1,200 bakeries unaffected by the compensation system continued to operate normally on Wednesday.

Tunisia is in the grip of a grinding economic downturn exacerbated by inflation that hit 9.8 per cent annually in December, according to official figures.

A $1.9 billion loan deal with the International Monetary Fund, which was agreed upon in principle in October, stipulates that the cash-strapped country should gradually scrap its subsidy programme.

The North African country, due to hold legislative elections on December 17, has also been mired in a political crisis since July 2021, when President Kais Saied seized full executive powers.

Updated: December 08, 2022, 10:29 AM