This is part of the ongoing neoliberal attack on unions and the working class. The role played by the UGTT specifically depends on the context. Observers sometimes deride it as a bureaucratic structure tainted with corruption. Sometimes they present it as a major sociopolitical actor and praise it. It was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its active role in establishing a national dialogue — a dialogue which, by the way, led to a technocratic government that continued negotiations with the IMF.
But today the most powerful union in Tunisia attracts the ire of the international financial institutions because of its resistance to implementing the IMF’s remaining conditions: reducing public sector employees’ wages, privatizing state-owned enterprises, and completely removing subsidies on fuel and food.
There’s huge pressure on the Tunisian government from the IMF and credit rating agencies to sign an agreement with the UGTT to pass these “reforms.” The attacks on the UGTT are fueling a debate that focuses on the public sector wages bill. But this debate in fact obscures reality. The real problem results from another IMF condition: the adoption of the central bank independence law in 2016. The resulting currency devaluation directly resulted in the shrinking purchasing power of workers.
We hear a lot of accusations against the UGTT and comments about the skyrocketing wages bill. But to understand this assault on wages we should look at Tunisia’s position in the international division of labor. What is Tunisia selling to the world, and at what cost?
We specialized during the liberalization period in selling sheep, bulk olive oil, low value-added assembled industrial components, and tourism. This economic development was based on a low-cost female labor force, and a race to the bottom in terms of working conditions. For decades in Tunisia, being a public employee was a safety net, a “nail in the wall” as the popular expression goes. It guaranteed access to consumer bank loans to buy a car or perhaps build a house. Today this is no longer possible. Hundreds of thousands of educated people like doctors and professors are unemployed. Whole regions are completely abandoned. There are very few job opportunities open to young people. We’re left with no basic social safety net.
These allegedly scientific and neutral proposals from the IMF will have consequences: the further deterioration of the public sector in terms of health and education. During the COVID crisis Tunisia has suffered a lot from the deterioration of the public health sector — further privatization will be lucrative for foreign investors but dire for Tunisians. They’re currently targeting water, electricity, and transport — which are still publicly owned enterprises — in order to drain surpluses to the capitalist center. This is the context of their attacks on the UGTT, which is rightly defending its constituencies in the public and private sector against this assault on wages.