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Tunisia must restore democracy and basic rights say young workers

09 Jun 2022

Young transport workers have condemned anti-union and anti-democracy moves by the Tunisian President and have strongly supported a national strike planned for 16 June 2022.

A statement released today by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Young Transport Workers Committee proclaims afresh solidarity with the Tunisian General Labour Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail — UGTT), and all Tunisian workers, in their fight for workers’ rights and democracy.

“Tunisia, once the proud spark of the Arab Spring leading to democracy, again finds itself in a struggle with despotic forces,” said Stephen Cotton, the ITF’s General Secretary. “I’m proud of the young workers standing up for the rights of Tunisia’s people and saying ‘no’ to a slide back into dictatorship.”

Tunisia has been a beacon for democracy in the region since the Jasmine Revolution of 2010/2011. A month of civil resistance starting in December 2010, and lead by union activists, saw the country overthrow its dictator president and establish itself as a truly free democracy. This resulted in a radical improvement in worker rights which union leaders have staunchly defended since.

In 2019, Kais Saied was sworn in as president, having being elected on a populist platform seeking to appeal to young voters and pledging to combat corruption. But in recent months, he has become increasingly autocratic, having responded poorly to the Covid-19 pandemic. He fired his prime minister and suspended parliament in July 2021. Public protests about his seizing of power have been mired by an outcry about police brutality.

This year, he replaced Nabil Baffoun, the chief of the electoral commission and an outspoken critic of his power grab.

Then he went after the judiciary. On Thursday (2 June 2022), he summarily fired 57 judges, accusing them of corruption and other crimes. On Saturday the Tunisian bar association announced a national strike in all criminal, administrative and financial courts.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said: “We fully support the judges’ strike and protests against this arbitrary dismissal, as well as all those who stand in solidarity with them and against attempts to control and manipulate the judiciary. We call on all concerned to support the UGTT’s endeavours to launch a serious national dialogue that ends the political, economic and social crisis in the country.”

Next, Saied proposes to change Tunisia’s constitution asking people to vote on 25 July in a yes/no referendum. No text for the new constitution has yet been published and the UGTT refused to participate in a so-called ‘national dialogue’ saying it was an attempt to trick them into endorsing documents already decided unilaterally by the President. Many activists fear the referendum is another move to increase the President’s power and another step away from democracy.

“The UGTT is still open to dialogue,” said Cotton, “despite the President’s high-handed approach. We believe the country’s future is best protected by politicians and workers coming together for the common good. The UGTT is demanding that worker rights are protected and has only resorted to strike action on the 16 June after it found the President had blocked all other avenues.”

On the ground in Hammamet, Tunisia, Horacio Calculli, Co-Chair of the ITF Young Transport Workers' Committee said: “Despite the sacrifices of the UGTT and Tunisian workers during Covid-19, wages have been frozen and anti-union activities have increased, undermining the fundamental human rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining. Attacks on the UGTT will hurt Tunisian workers, families, the economy and the future of the country.”

Dorotea Zec, Co-Chair of the ITF Young Transport Workers' Committee reiterated the position of the young workers’ call for a restoration of democracy and basic rights: “The ITF and its Young Transport Workers, on behalf of nearly twenty million transport workers around the world, strongly condemn these attacks on democracy, decent work, and fundamental human rights, including workers’ rights.”

“We stand in solidarity alongside the UGTT to demand that the government and employers return to meaningful dialogue with trade unions, and respect existing and future industrial agreements, and protect the social conditions the Tunisian people are entitled to.”