Tunisia’s underserved city of Gafsa strikes over years of neglect

The strike will hit the vital phosphate basin in Gafsa, which is the main employer in the province and a key national income earner

An archived photo for a picket by a railway track in the Tunisian phosphate producing region of Metlaoui on May 19, 2015. Since the 2011 the pickets by unemployed local men have obstructed the trains that carry phosphate to the coast for export. Eileen Byrne for The National
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Tunisians in the governorate of Gafsa are set to strike on Thursday to protest years of economic hardship brought on by neglect from successive governments.

The country has seen eight governments in a decade after the downfall of the country’s longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but the issues affecting the central province never change.

It is one of the most underserved regions in the country, its inhabitants say.

Supported by the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), public workers are protesting for one day against increasing economic problems that eroded the living standards of Gafsa’s 100,000 people from a population of nearly 12 million.

"The infrastructure in the city is creaking, the streets are rough, families are living in abject poverty. You can't live there if you have children with no proper education and no entertainment facilities," the Assistant Secretary General of the UGTT, Mohammed Ali Boughdiri, told The National.

The UGTT, an acronym for its French name Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, played a major role in the 2010/11 Tunisian revolution and in the subsequent democratisation process. It was part of the National Dialogue Quartet that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.

“Today’s strike is a peaceful and civil one that draws the attention of the government in Tunis to the miserable living conditions in the city,” said Mr Boughdiri.

The strike will cover all government facilities except for the vital medical sector, as the country struggles to curb a second wave of coronavirus that has worsened the economic crisis.

The message to the government in Tunis, where the wealth is concentrated, is that the strike will remain our essential and ultimate tool to pressure the decision makers into improving the harsh existence of Tunisians and ease the austerity measures. Labour leader, Mohammed Ali Boughdiri

The phosphate industry has been the focal point of growing public anger and frustration in the region for years. It is a key hard currency earner for the country but production has been badly affected by the on-and-off protests since 2011. Another big source of income is tourism, which nearly collapsed following a string of terrorist attacks in recent years and the Covid-19 pandemic.

It will also hit the vital phosphate basin in Gafsa, as workers at all five state-run mines have agreed to take part, Mr Boughdiri said.

The phosphate mines are also the main employer in the city, which has a towering unemployment rate of nearly 30 per cent, according to Tunisia’s National Institute of Statistics.

The World Bank says that the country’s unemployment rate stood at 16 per cent in the third quarter of last year.

“The message to the government in Tunis, where the wealth is concentrated, is that the strike will remain our essential and ultimate tool to pressure the decision-makers into improving the harsh existence of Tunisians and ease the austerity measures,” added Mr Boughdiri, sounding frustrated.

He was referring to reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for loans to Tunisia’s struggling economy, including salary freezes of the public sector’s 600,000 workers and cut of subsidies.

It is not only Gafsa that stages a wide strike. Public sector workers in the province of Sfax will step in the shoes of their fellows in Gafsa on January 12.

Tunis, the capital, is actually the poster child for anti-government protests and the launch-pad of a painful general strike in 2019 that disrupted all public services including ports, transport, schools and even hospitals.

The demands have remained the same since Ben Ali was forced from office: improve living conditions, reduce unemployment, poverty and higher pay. The government has been trying to negotiate an end to the protests to no avail and marathon last-minute negotiations have usually failed to avert strikes.

Zuhir Jilis, a 34-year-old teacher, is one of the optimistic Tunisians who participated in mass demonstrations against poverty and repression, which led to the ouster of Ben Ali, whose fall sparked uprisings and civil wars in the region.

His tone was very pessimistic today.

“We suffer from many hardships in today’s Tunisia not only in Gafsa. Where shall I start from? Unemployment, underdevelopment, poverty, Coronavirus. You choose,” Mr Jilis fumed.

“We haven’t reaped any benefit of this revolution. We got nothing.”