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Tunisian textile and garment union sees strong growth

6 December, 2016An organizing campaign backed by IndustriALL Global Union in the textile and garment sector in the Middle East and North Africa is seeing strong results, with many unions reporting growth.

The organizing programme has resulted in impressive growth for unions in Tunisia and other countries in just one year. Key countries supplying textiles and garments in the region are Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Organizing campaigns were launched in these countries, with concrete targets, using international tools such as global framework agreements for leverage. IndustriALL conducted an extenisive mapping of the sector before starting the campaign.

In Tunisia, the organizing campaign started in December 2015, with work to support affiliate Fédération Générale du Textile, de l'Habillement, Chaussure et Cuir (FGTHCC-UGTT). It included training, visits to factories and industrial areas, mobilizing women and young people, producing material, and conducting a survey.

The textile and garment sector is one of Tunisia’s main industries, employing about 176,000. It accounted for more than US$2.7 billion in exports in 2014. Eighty per cent of exports go to the EU, and this may grow as Tunisia and the EU are negotiating a free trade agreement.

Tunisia manufactures for major brands like H&M, Zara, Calvin Klein, Benetton, and GAP. Despite the size and importance of the sector, it suffers from low investment, with low value added, and production usually happens in small units. There is very little formal training. Wages are low, with an average of about US$200 per month, not much above the minimum wage.

Eighty per cent of workers are women, many of them young. Short term contracts of just a few months are typical, and turn over is high. There is a high rate of informal and precarious work, jobs are not secure, and firing is used to discipline labour.

The campaign focused on mobilizing women and young workers, with a focus on job security, wages and vocational training. Organizer training was held in Tunis, Hammamet and Mehdia. Trained worker leaders visited workplaces and industrial areas, and recruited workers to the union.

FGTHCC-UGTT general secretary Habib Hazmi said:

“The result of this campaign has been a seven per cent growth in membership over the past year. Crucially, the campaign has done more than recruit: it has provided leaders with new skills, and revitalized the union’s work through regular meetings, coordination, communication, solidarity action and reports.

“It has also led to wider engagement in debates about the future of the sector, its implications for the workplace, and union strategies for the current sectorial bargaining round.”

Houcine Abbasi, general secretary of the UGTT trade union centre, and joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, attended the session in Hammamet, and said:

“Transnational corporations focus on profit and ignore the social aspect. They consider unions to be external bodies, and fight against them.

“Unionization in the private sector is low, and sectorial agreements don’t cover small enterprises which employ less than 20 workers.

“Unions need to cooperate locally and globally. Expanding our organizing protects our rights and gains. Organizing is an existential issue.”

This success is being replicated in other countries in the region, with many unions reporting significant growth in membership and influence, despite repression.

 Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL assistant general secretary, said:

“IndustriALL’s strategic goal is to build strong unions. At last years’ regional organizing conference, we decided to focus on the textile and garment sector.

“The results after one year of organizing are in: our unions have grown in size and strength. This is excellent work, and we will continue to support our affiliates to build their power and influence.”