Margreet in Tunis: social dialogue after the Jasmine revolution

In the first week of January, FWF’s verification coordinator Margreet Vrieling travelled to Tunesia to meet with stakeholders and with our audit team there and assess the situation after last year’s changes.

Tunis is rich in ancient historical sites, to which have been added recent historical landmarks which people are eager to show me. Walking through the city center, the FWF audit supervisor indicates where and how people died. They gave their lives in the Jasmine revolution, which changed the lives of Tunisians one year ago and marked the start of what is widely known as the Arab Spring.

While I’m in Tunis, a diverse group of foreign politicians is visiting, offering their support to the fledgeling Tunesian democracy. After visits of the United States Assembly, a Palestine delegation visited and today both the Italian and French foreign ministers. The former national day of Ben Ali on 7 November has been cancelled, while 14 January will now be celebrated as the start of a new Tunisia.

But it is not only excitement I encounter when I talk to the different stakeholders. There’s apprehension and a general attitude of wait-and-see: what will the interim government do? How will unions, civil society and media position themselves, how will they use their new-found freedom?

In the meantime the Labour Inspectorate, which dates back to 1907, continues its work. For the garment sector they signal several needs for improvements. On OSH areas, on avoiding delays in payment, and especially on improving social dialogue at factory level – though a collective bargaining process to agree on minimum wages has been in place for years.

The trade union is restructuring its organisation and has elected a new board. Discourse at national level is surprisingly moderate and very hopeful, focused on dialogue.
Talking to several stakeholders now, they all confirm that that minimum wages are below living wage level. In spring the new negotiations will start again, and it will be interesting to see how this will go in the new context. Some factories have been faced with sudden ‘sit-ins’ from workers to underline their demands, though not as much as in other sectors.

Fenatex, the business association responsible for garments and textile, confirms that the sector, in which around 2000 enterprises are active, is suffering more from the worldwide economic crisis than from the national revolution. Despite the recession a small growth of 2 or 3 % is expected.

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