In Tunisia, garment workers organize to rectify unpaid wages
Menzel Tamime, Tunisia
In debt and short of options, Tunisian seamstress Najeh is basing her hopes on her employer’s promise to pay four months of overdue wages in August.
The seamstress, who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisal, is the main breadwinner in her household and commutes to her 22-year-old garment factory job every day despite the fact that she doesn’t has received no salary since March.
Tunisian garment factories, which mainly supply European fashion brands, have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic – with thousands of job cuts and an increase in complaints of labor rights violations in the sector, union leaders said.
“How is there no money? We work. Exports are as always, âMs. Najeh, who sews cuffs on shirts at the Fada factory in Menzel Temime in the northeast of the country, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during her lunch break.
Exports recovered after a drop in shipments to major European markets, but some 4,500 textile and clothing workers lost their jobs in the year ending February 2021, according to the Tunisian Textile Federation. and clothing (FTTH).
Others, like Ms. Najeh, have spent months without pay during the pandemic.
Despite the Fada factory owner’s pledge to pay the overdue wages next month, Ms. Najeh said she did not feel reassured to receive the money she was owed from her monthly salary of 530 dinars. Tunisians ($ 192) and worried about the future of the factory.
Fada’s lawyer declined to comment.
Ms Najeh said the factory made shirts for Italian brands such as the Renato Balestra Group, Lancetti and Il Granchio – none of which immediately responded to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Ms. Najeh juggles debts to her local store, her son’s guardian, and the bus driver who takes her to work every day.
Three other Fada workers said they were evicted from their homes, unable to pay rent, due to the wage freeze.
The clothing and textile industry is the North African country’s second largest export source, according to official data, and contributed 2.1 billion euros to the economy in 2020, according to the industry group. FTTH.
More than 150,000 Tunisians work in the industry, mostly women, and the pandemic has brought to light widespread labor abuses, said Mounir Hassine, regional director of the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES), an NGO .
âCOVID has speeded things up, but it all has to do with structural issues in the industry,â he said.
Only around 1 in 10 workers belong to a union, and while four years of work entitles an employee to an open-ended contract that guarantees better terms such as severance pay, workers said employers are finding often ways to get around the rule.
Mr Hassine said employees are rarely compensated in the event of plant closures as companies seek to offload any property that may be requisitioned after declaring bankruptcy.
During the pandemic, he said there had been an increase in complaints of non-payment of severance pay and regular wages.
Withholding payment without reason or notice to workers is illegal under article 21 of the Tunisian Labor Code, said Mounir Jendoubi, representative of the Tunisian union UGTT in Nabeul.
Businesses “trying to survive”
About 80% of Tunisian textile and clothing factories produce exclusively for Europe, meaning they were hit hard when exports to the European Union fell 15% in 2020 from the year previous.
In Italy, one of the main buyers, fashion stores closed for four and a half months last year due to closings and sales fell by more than a third, according to the Italian industry federation of Confcommercio fashion.
“Businesses have been suffering for over a year, look at the average level of consumption in Europe – businesses are not growing, they are just trying to survive,” said Hosni Boufaden, Chairman of FTTH.
He said manufacturers continued to pay workers during the first lockdown last year despite the export crisis and factory closures, compensating by cutting annual paid vacation pay.
These efforts were recognized by Ahmed Chahloul, national coordinator of the âSCORE TUNISIAâ project of the International Labor Organization, which works with the Tunisian government.
“I saw more solidarity than confrontation,” he said, citing employers who had continued to pay wages when activity stopped and employees who accepted reduced working hours or lower wages.
But he added that there had been “a migration to precariousness” since the emergence of COVID-19.
As the pandemic further reduces wages, which average 450 dinars ($ 163) per month, some workers are organizing among themselves to fight for their rights.
In Menzel Tamime, Fada workers elected a four-person committee in April to organize protests and coordinate with the national union, UGTT, and to negotiate with their employer.
Negotiations were initially impossible but after more than 150 employees demonstrated in June outside the governor’s office in Nabeul, the main town in the region, they obtained a meeting with the labor inspectorate and Fada’s lawyer.
During talks, the factory said wages owed since March would be paid in August.
âIf that doesn’t work, we fear we will have to go to court,â Ms. Najeh said, adding that the employer refused to pay them for a two-month leave period last year.
For now, all they can do is hope.
There are people who have worked here for 25 years, âsaid Ms. Najeh. “It was a small factory when we started, we were the ones who enlarged it and made it prosperous.”
This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.