Hundreds of thousands of Tunisian public sector workers walked off the job on Thursday in a nationwide strike to demand an increase in purchasing power and to oppose proposed spending cuts and privatisation as the country faces an economic crisis.
The strike, called by the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union, or UGTT, shuttered public administrations, put a to halt public transport and grounded flights at Tunis-Carthage International Airport, and is seen as one of the most direct challenges to President Kais Saied since he assumed sole control of the country last July.
The UGTT has rejected the government’s economic reform plan, released earlier this month, which forms the basis of negotiations with the IMF over a $4 billion loan package that could keep the country from defaulting.
Strident cuts to the public wage bill, phasing out subsidies on fuel and food staples, and the privatisation of state companies are all included in the plan, the publication of which IMF spokesman Gerry Rice welcomed in a recent statement.
“We want to be a strong partner for Tunisia,” Mr Rice said, confirming that the IMF was in technical discussions with Tunisia on securing the loan.
For Aymen Dridi, a maintenance technician for the Ministry of Education, the decline in purchasing power is at the heart of his decision to support the strike. He said the 7.5 per cent inflation rate and increases in the price of staples such as milk, sugar, bread and coffee have hit his family hard.
“Why do I work? To get a salary,” he said. “But if my salary doesn't cover even the basics, why am I working at all?”
An IMF delegation will meet President Saied and Prime Minister Najila Bouden next week.
But without the support of the UGTT, which, with more than a million members, is one of the most powerful political forces in the country, such economic reforms are likely to fail.
In a recent report, Fitch Ratings said that “passing political and economic reforms without the UGTT’s backing would be challenging”, but that “union buy-in would strengthen the credibility of an economic reform programme and substantially increase the likelihood of an IMF funding arrangement”.
Early on Thursday, several hundred workers gathered in front of the UGTT headquarters in downtown Tunis to sing union anthems and express their support for the strike, despite temperatures climbing towards 37ºC.
Feryel Derguzli, who has worked at the state electricity company for the past 28 years, said she had worries about her future if the proposed privatisation takes place.
“I came out to show my pride in our public companies — they are one of the big wins Tunisia has,” she said.
Under the proposed plan presented to the International Monetary Fund, many such companies would be privatised, with headcount trimmed as the organisations are streamlined.
The government is the largest employer in the country, with an estimated 345,000 employees according to Statista, whom it regularly struggles to pay. Proponents of slashing the public wage bill point to record absenteeism and redundancy as costly problems for the government.
Another major concern on the minds of workers at the strike are the proposed cuts to subsidies on staple goods such as flour, sugar and milk.
Sonia Ben Ayed, a cleaner who has worked in state institutions for more than a decade, said her pay cheque buys less now than it did five years ago.
“We aren’t asking for the impossible,” she said, “we are asking the government to keep the subsidies that let us live.”
Addressing the crowd, UGTT Secretary General Noureddine Taboubi rejected what the union says is a smear campaign targeting them and the strike.
“We are patriots whether they like it or not,” he said. “You cannot target the UGTT, because whenever things get rough, Tunisians look to the union.”
The government has condemned the strike. Minister of Employment Nasreddine Nisibi said in a statement that the government "respects the right to strike, but will requisition workers" if necessary to keep a minimum level of service for the public.
Dialogue boycotted by UGTT
The strike comes with the union at loggerheads with Mr Saied over political as well as economic reforms, including the ongoing rewrite of the country's historic 2014 constitution.
The union has boycotted the national dialogue set up by Mr Saied and refused to participate in the social and economic affairs subcommittee drafting the new constitution, saying it is a sham process meant to rubber stamp the president's ideas.
Mr Taboubi said in a recent statement that he refuses to be a “false witness” to a process that does not reflect the will of the people.
Many strikers said they know the action will further provoke the president, who has been at loggerheads with the union over both economic and political reform.
Yathreb Rmak was hopeful that seeing the union members’ fervour for a more stable economy might inspire the president to listen to their demands.
“I hope this pushes Kais Saied closer to the people — the people who voted for him, not just a tight circle of ministers who are telling him what to do."
With two teenagers at home who she wants to give a normal life — new clothes, internet access to do their homework and connect with friends — Ms Rmak said she feels “stuck in the mud” financially.
"I feel like the future of my kids, and my country, is at risk, that it is hanging in the balance.”
Mr Dridi, the maintenance technician, said he understood the strike is as much about politics as it is about the economy.
“The strike demands have been issues for years, but the union has decided to call a strike now because they feel they've not been given leeway to participate in the reform process the way they ought to.”
Still, he hoped the strike would not bring a backlash against low-wage public workers such as himself.
“There is a chance they could cut our wages and I don't know what I'd do if that is the case,” he said.