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PROFILE: Trade unions paving the way to stability

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2 December, 2014As free, democratic and independent unions are gaining strength throughout the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), Tunisia is an incredible example of how unions can play a key role in building new democratic societies.


COUNTRY: Tunisia

TEXT: Ahmed Kamel

A revolution in 2011 led Tunisia onto a bumpy road towards democracy. But despite a number of political crises, including assassinations of leading political figures, the country’s first democratic constitution was finally adopted on 26 January of this year.

Largely applauded for its modernity, the new constitution had been delayed by near political deadlock as different political parties argued over the role of Islam in one of the Arab world’s most secular countries.

Tunisia’s National Assembly approved the final articles of the country’s new constitution that enshrines freedom of association, unions’ right to organize, the right to strike, gender equality and women’s protection against violence.

With an overwhelming majority of 200 of the total 216 votes, it was finally passed in the National Constituent Assembly in January 2014.

The country’s largest trade union centre, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) and its member unions, including IndustriALL Global Union’s affiliates in the country, have played a crucial role in the development of the new constitution. One significant contribution is the road map for national development, a platform where political parties can meet in order to achieve a democratic transition.

During the transition period and its various constitutional experiments, the UGTT remained the only true space for collective action. Having successfully asserted its distance from the dictatorship, it offered a harmonious basis to resolve political differences. The logic established by this process led to the formation of the “consensual constitution” that formed the foundation for an understanding between Islamists and modernists.

Founded in 1946, the UGTT is a national centre, counting its members among different regions, political orientation and social groups. This varied membership created a culture of making compromises rather than building positions based on ideological and partisan orientations.

The UGTT’s active intervention in the aftermath of the Arab Spring allowed workplaces and factories to remain open, contributing substantially to the stabilization of the country in the process.

It also brought an end to the practice of sub-contracting government employment, bringing back 60,000 workers into permanent jobs.

This successful union work since the revolution has seen the UGTT’s membership soar by more than 30 per cent, to 750,000 members.

Women in Tunisia

Tunisia’s new constitution could also mean a huge change for women in the country following the adoption of a clause guaranteeing gender equality in legislative assemblies and for steps to be taken to protect women against violence.

By law Tunisian men and women have been equal since the Personal Status Law was passed in 1956. However if put into practice, clauses such as Article 45, which requires the government to create parity for women in all legislative assemblies in the country, are bound to make history.

According to a poll on the situation of women in Arab countries by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Tunisia’s new constitution can be seen as a victory for gender equality. Together with civil society and political allies, the UGTT’s women’s committee played a significant role in drafting the Constitution and in lobbying for support around the articles promoting gender equality and women’s rights.

Unemployment and a lack of decent job opportunities were major causes of the revolution in 2011. Compared to men, women have a low employment rate; 22 per cent versus 61 per cent. Most women work in textiles, clothing, agriculture, administration, education, health services and the informal economy. The textile and clothing sector is particularly vulnerable due to global competition. This creates an insecure environment for women as they are usually the first to be dismissed in any restructuring in times of economic difficulties.

In Tunisia, informal employment accounts for 54 per cent of jobs. The unequal access to the formal labour market pushes women into informal jobs. Informal workers are all victims of discrimination in Tunisia, as they have no social protection. There is a lack of necessary protection for working women and a deterioration of working conditions in subcontracting and precarious work.

IndustriALL supports the recently founded Tunisian Women’s Network for its four affiliates in the country. The network is tasked with strengthening the position of working women at industry level, developing strategies to enhance women’s participation in the decision making process, combatting precarious work and campaigning on issues relevant to women nationwide.

Tunisian trade unions’ emphasis on improving rights for women workers has helped mobilize women workers in support of wage demands. The Tunisian focus is on collective bargaining to deliver wage outcomes rather than waiting for the government or the judiciary to raise wages.

“Developing collective bargaining strength and capacity at industry level is the best strategy for achieving higher wages,” says Tahar Berberi, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union affiliate Fédération Générale de la Métallurgie et de l’Electronique – UGTT and member of IndustriALL’s Executive Committee.