The revolutionary zeal that deposed Ben Ali turns to labour strikes

Tunisia had zero economic growth last year and desperately needs jobs - but paralysing labour disputes are discouraging investors.

Taxi drivers wait for customers in Mateur, an industrial town near Tunis gripped last week by a labour strike and rioting.
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MATEUR, TUNISIA // Shops and factories were closed, stones and tear gas were in the air, and Mohamed Tayachi, mayor of Mateur, was worried about his town.

"We have a social and economic crisis," he said last Thursday as the stinging scent of tear gas invaded his office. "And if we don't solve it, we risk chaos."

Last week this town 50 kilometres north-west of Tunis fell victim to a problem Tunisia's leaders are struggling to solve: industrial centres paralysed by labour disputes.

The uprising last year that overthrew the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali also unleashed strikes and protests as workers and the unemployed sought redress for old grievances.

That turmoil is part of the reason Tunisia had no economic growth last year, leaving an urgent need for jobs and investment. Last month the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, made a televised appeal for Tunisians to cease near-constant strikes that he said had cost the economy 2.5 billion Tunisian dinars (Dh6.1bn) since Ben Ali's removal.

While strikes have diminished in recent months, the country's economic future remains uncertain, said Moez Labidi, an economics professor at the University of Monastir.

"The government's success depends on its capacity to convince people, especially in neglected areas, that it's enacting reforms to lower unemployment and wealth gaps," he said.

It was in Tunisia's impoverished hinterland where the protests over unemployment and state corruption erupted that eventually helped drive Ben Ali from power. That revolutionary zeal has continued to fuel industrial action since Ben Ali's departure in January 2011.

"There's a long, dark history of unemployment and workers' rights denied by the old regime," said Ismail Sahbani, secretary general of the Union of Tunisian Workers (UTT). "Those things accumulate. Now that we have freedom, people want to express themselves."

The UTT, formed last May, works to prevent strikes by helping workers negotiate with employers, Mr Sahbani said. The union also wants a new labour law to define the salary and benefits rights of tens of thousands of temporary workers whom it says are not covered by existing legislation.

"Workers who feel secure will give more to their company," Mr Sahbani said. "It's when they feel neglected that their productivity goes down."

Accounts vary as to how things soured this month at one of two factories in Mateur owned by Leoni, a German manufacturer of automotive cables.

Both UTT representatives in Mateur and Leoni officials trace problems to friction between factory managers and Moonem Darragi, head of the factory's UTT chapter.

The UTT had previously called on Leoni to offer long-term contracts to workers it says are legally entitled to them for having worked for at least four years for the company.

This month Mr Darragi clashed with Leoni managers over reduced salaries, said Hassen Dhaouadi, head of the UTT's Mateur branch. Leoni's Tunisia spokesman, Mohamed Hedi Graa, said there were no such reductions.

Mr Graa said Mr Darragi bullied staff in efforts to harm production and threatened to set fire to himself, which Mr Dhaouadi denied.

Leoni closed the factory temporarily last weekend for talks with the UTT, while Mr Darragi was arrested last Wednesday on accusations of attempted self-immolation, said Mr Tayachi.

The following morning local residents angry over the arrest blocked a bridge into Mateur with burning debris, prompting most businesses and factories to close. By midday police were firing tear gas at stone-throwing youths in the town centre.

At the UTT's office, Mr Dhaouadi sat wrapped in a brown shepherd's cloak, conferring with colleagues and fielding calls on his mobile phone from Tunisian media.

"Darragi is popular among the workers, and that's why people are angry now," he said between calls. "He's the first prisoner of conscience in Mateur since the revolution."

At city hall, Mr Tayachi and his friend Abderrahman Mersani, a sociology professor, were bundled in coats and hats against the cold, listening to the thud of tear-gas guns fired at protesters outside.

"The problem is that civil society is absent. If they were taking things in hand, we wouldn't have all that," Mr Tayachi said, gesturing towards the sounds of confrontation.

The lack of charities and advocacy groups that might help smooth out problems is a legacy of Ben Ali's suffocating rule, said Mr Mersani, a member of the Tunisian League for Human Rights. "Now we're trying to find our way in a new society."

Mr Tayach wants a comprehensive development plan for the region, whose resources he said were mismanaged by Ben Ali's regime.

For now, Mateur relies for jobs on companies such as Leoni, whose two factories with 6,000 workers place it among the town's leading employers.

Leoni, in turn, relies on Mateur, said Sven Schmidt, the company's chief press officer. Leoni is Tunisia's largest private-sector employer, he said, benefiting from the country's proximity to Europe, skilled workers and low overhead costs.

Since Ben Ali's departure, Leoni has hired an additional 2,000 employees to bring the total to 14,000 and is committed to staying in Tunisia, Mr Schmidt said.

"But when production is down or there are delays, our customers may tell us that they can no longer rely on us producing in Tunisia," he said.

Mr Dhaouadi proposes that Mr Darragi be suspended from work for one month to allow tempers to cool as talks continue between Leoni and the UTT.

"If we don't find a solution, we could have a very big problem," he said. "First economic and social problems, and then more stones and tear gas."