Two parts of the quartet that won the Nobel Peace Prize for their ability to engage in dialogue, have failed to come up with an agreement about pay increases in a country already affected bysevere economic crises due to security and political unrest.

Two parts of the quartet that won the Nobel Peace Prize for their ability to engage in dialogue, have failed to come up with an agreement about pay increases in a country already affected bysevere economic crises due to security and political unrest.

The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) – workers’ organization – and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA) – employers’ organization- began negotiations a few weeks ago about a potential pay raise for private sector workers. Talks have since been suspended, causing the UGTT to declare a series of wide-range strikes that will disrupt economic activities in many cities.

The first strike will be staged on November 19 in Sfax Governorate; the second in Greater Tunis Region; the third on November 26 in the governorates of Zaghouan, Nabeul, Monastir, Mahdia and Sousse; the fourth on November 27 in the governorates of Bizerte, Béja, Jendouba and El Kef; the fifth on November 30 in the governorates of Siliana, Kairouan and Kasserine; and the final one is scheduled for December 1 in the governorates of Tozeur, Medenine, Gabès, Tataouine, Kebili and Gafsa.

The UGTT demands a salary increase of 15%, which was later reduced by 3 percentage points, while the UTICA only accepts an increase of 4%. The private sector employs some 1.5 million workers where the average salary does not exceed TND 400 (US $195).

Bickering and accusations 

The UGTT, the UTICA, the Tunisian Union for Lawyers and the Tunisian League for Human Rights Defense will travel to Norway on December 10 to receive the Nobel Prize, granted to them due to their successful efforts in saving the country from an acute political crisis in late 2013. The UGTT and the UTICA however have since failed to reach an agreement on the pay raise and have criticized and leveled accusations against each other.

The conflict has peaked since head of the UTICA Wided Bouchamaoui said the UTICA would neither submit to threats in order to increase wages, nor would it be bothered by the threats with strikes.

The UGTT has deemed Bouchamaoui’s statement as insulting to workers’ legitimate demands, boycotted the negotiations which it deem unserious, and most importantly decided to stage a series of strikes throughout the country.

Although some refuse escalations and the policy of arm-twisting between the two unions, they believe that staging such largescale strikes by the UGTT is an exaggeration and an attempt to confuse the economic condition even though Tunisia is already suffering from economic deflation.

Others however express their understanding of UGTT’s decision due to suspended dialogue with the UTICA, and say their power of purchase has sharply declined under skyrocketing prices and decreased salaries.

One million poor in Tunisia

Yusry Muhzabi, a worker in a glass factory, says his salary disappears quickly due to soaring prices and increased rent payments and electricity and water bills, which frequently lead him to overdraw on his bank account.

Although he is very careful with his payments and limits his expenses to the most necessary needs, Muhzabi often finds himself short of cash. “Prices are rocketing, while my salary is still very low,” says Muhzabi. “This dilemma often makes me think of illegal migration to Europe to find a well-paid job.”

The Ministry of Social Affairs estimates the number of the poor in Tunisia at one million. Tunisian economist Murad Hattab believes that the 12% wage increase demanded by the UGTT is “hardly sufficient to allay hunger and fill workers’ empty stomachs,” and describes the UTICA’s stance as “stubborn.”

The indifferent position of the UTICA regarding the planned strikes, says Hattab, will destabilize social stability and damage the business and investment environment, which has declined to a record low since the Tunisian Revolution in 2011. The UGTT cannot backtrack because of the huge pressure put on its members, who have fallen from the middle class to poverty due to the successive price increases.

Belgacem Ayari, the UGTT Assistant Secretary-General, says the UGTT refuses to make laborers bear the brunt of the failed development choices. Since 2012, says Ayari, private sector workers have received only one salary increase of TND 20 (US $9) in 2014, while prices have soared.

He says the UGTT is open to any reasonable negotiation initiative, arguing that its planned strikes are only a constitutional means to defend workers’ rights.

The UTICA adheres to its stance although it stresses it understands the UGTT’s position. Head of the UTICA Social Negotiation Committee Khalil Gharyani says the UTICA has agreed to sit down at the negotiation table despite the strike warning, which is against the law.

The current recession and the high inflation rate, says Gharyani, should be taken into account during negotiations and the UTICA cannot negotiate under pressure.

Official figures show that in September on a year-to-year basis, industrial investment was down by 2.9 percent and the entrepreneurship rate dropped by 4.3 percent. Observers believe that the crisis between the two unions will exacerbate if they do not show any flexibility.