Wed, 21 Aug 2019

Tunisia gripped with large, nationwide workers strike over pay

By Sheetal Sukhija, Middle East News
19 Jan 2019, 01:08 GMT+10

TUNIS, Tunisia - Thousands of workers participated in a one-day nationwide strike organized by Tunisia's largest union, which brought transportation to a standstill in the country on Thursday.

The powerful UGTT union organized a strike by workers to protest against the government's refusal to raise the salaries of about 670,000 public servants.

The strike on Thursday, which was the biggest held in the North African country since the assassination of opposition politician Chokri Belaid in February 2013, caused rail, bus and air traffic in the country to halt for the day.

Airports, ports, schools, hospitals, state media and government offices were impacted due to workers going on strike. 

Thousands of protesters gathered outside the UGTT headquarters and in the capital's Habib Bourghiba Avenue on Thursday, calling for salary hikes.

The workers staging the strike shouted slogans like 'The people want the overthrow of the government,' 'Power belongs to the people.'

Addressing thousands of people gathered in front of the UGTT headquarters, the union leader Nourredine Taboubi declared, "The government have chosen the confrontation with the public servants and we are ready."

Taboubi added, "We will study on Saturday the next steps and we will step up our action and will not back down."

Ahead of the strike, several police teams were deployed across the country to handle any untoward incident or violent outbursts through the day. 

Later in the day, officials said that police did not interfere with the strike action.

Officials added that strikes were also held in other cities, including in Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, Jendouba and Sfax.

The strike action forced several flights at the Tunis Carthage airport to be cancelled and check-in counters were closed at the airport.

Hundreds of angry passengers were stranded at the airport, adding to the chaos.

Rocky transition to democracy

After toppling the autocrat Ben Ali, Tunisia has been navigating a rocky transition to democracy.

While the country has adopted a constitution that guarantees fundamental rights and holding free elections, Tunisia has been gripped by an economic crisis.

The crisis has eroded living standards for Tunisians and unemployment is high.

The country has been facing pressure from the IMF to freeze public sector wages to reduce its budget deficit. 

The UGTT has argued that the monthly average wage of about $250 is one of the lowest in the world.

However, the government has stated that it does not have the funds to pay more for public employees.

Officials have argued that any increase would lift annual inflation to 10 percent from the current 7.4 percent.

However, the Deputy Secretary-General of the UGTT, Sami Tahri said that the government had come under the dictates of the IMF and had opted for a confrontation with public servants.

Currently, the government spends $187 million annually on public sector salaries but the UGTT wants that spending raised to around $800 million.

On Thursday, the President Beji Caid Essebsi called on the government to try and limit the strike.

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