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Made in Tunisia: Women textile workers resist poor working conditions

Women textile workers are learning that they can be their own bosses despite the challenges Tunisia's tough economy poses
Mamotex workers holding assembly in March to organise the self-management of the factory (MEE/Alessia Tibolo)

CHEBBA, Tunisia -  "I borrow money from friends to buy food,” said 35-year-old Dalel Mdimegh at a coffee shop in Chebba, near the coastal city of Mahdia in east Tunisia. Having free time for coffee on a Saturday morning is not something that makes Dalel happy these days, even after a ride on her motorbike.

On an ordinary Saturday, Mdimegh would normally be wearing her light green workwear and stitching away at her sewing machine to provide for her seven-member family. But after 21 years in operation, the textile factory where she has been working for more than three years closed overnight. Mdimegh and her 64 female co-workers suddenly found themselves on the street.

A sign in front of the Mamotex factory which reads: Mamotex Pret a Porter Company, Mamotex Limited Liability Company, No entry. Authorised Personnel Only (MEE/Alessia Tibolo)

Sparks of resistance

The owner of Mamotex, the factory in question, announced its immediate shutdown in January due to supposed financial problems. In reaction to this, Mdimegh and her workmates decided to do something quite unexpected: they would "recover" the factory as a worker cooperative, thus taking over the factory under their own supervision. In doing so, the workers would not only ensure they got paid, but they would also share all extra profits to reimburse themselves for the unpaid salaries and social security fees their employer still owed them from 2015.

Ιn a meeting with the trade union, workers and the local governor, the owner agreed to step back and assist them in finding raw materials and clients until his debt is repaid. 

“We felt powerful and independent. It was the trade union’s idea and we immediately accepted,” Mdimegh remembers smiling. These female workers hoped to become a flagship for the empowerment of women and workers by asserting self-management and establishing a model of running a recovered factory in Tunisia. Yet despite this spirit of entrepreneurship, things are currently stagnating, shedding light on the problems tormenting the workforce of this new-born democracy in the Arab world.

Inside Mamotex factory after the announcement of its closure (MEE/Alessia Tibolo)

Behind the 'Made in Tunisia' tag

Mamotex is an outsourcing firm whose mother company, Sodrico, provides it with raw materials imported from Europe in order to manufacture clothes and then export them to large European companies that sell their “Made in Tunisia” garments on busy shopping streets.

Sodrico, which belongs to a family member of the owner of Mamotex, currently refuses to assign any orders to Mamotex workers. “They claim there is a shortage of raw materials, but in reality it is a political choice in order to avoid reinforcing the workers’ self-management experiment,” Bahri Lehdele, president of the UGTT trade union's local branch in Chebba told MEE. As a result of this, the factory remains closed, making it impossible for the women to find new clients.

In Mahdia, a city of 80,000 inhabitants, the principal pillar of the economy is weaving, a job which is exclusively reserved for women. Men instead rely on working in the fishing business, but as the sector faces a deep crisis, women have become the main breadwinners of family households.

The clothing industry plays a strategic role in the national economy, as it constitutes the first employer in the industrial sector, engaging 34 percent of the workforce, according to the Agency for the Promotion of Industry and Innovation.

Tunisia is the fifth largest apparel supplier to Europe, with one out of three pairs of jeans made in the cost-competitive North African country, a fact which the government's Foreign Investment Promotion Agency proudly advertises online. Nevertheless, during the past five years the sector has been bleeding, mirroring the faltering Tunisian economy, as 300 enterprises have shut down and 4,000 jobs were lost.

"After the 2011 revolution, many investors left Tunisia, citing security as a primary reason, but mainly because the workers demanded their rights. They prefer Morocco and Turkey where working rights are more degraded,” Alaa Talbi, the spokesperson of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) told MEE.

Despite the post-2011 workers’ mobilisation, research on the violations of textile workers’ rights in rural Tunisia reveals that salaries are not in accordance with the volume of work provided. Employers rarely pay for social security and female workers are often forced to live in ghettos and are regularly affected by malnourishment.

“I was enthusiastic about the Mamotex initiative but also pessimistic," Talbi said, explaining that “In 2014 a Belgian investor closed his textile factory without warning, leaving 300 workers on the street. The workers won the trial but we couldn’t apply the verdict as the employer no longer had a declared address in Tunisia. This case exemplifies how Tunisian law forces the workers to suffer precarious conditions.”

Video produced by Giulia Bertoluzzi

Fear of unemployment

Twenty-five-year old Imen Fartoul joins us at the coffee shop. She is another ex-Mamotex worker who says she would fight tooth and nail to keep her job. “I’ve been working in Mamotex since I was 13-years-old. I dropped out of school to help my family. It was difficult before due to the working conditions, but now we struggle even to survive,” she said.

Imen and Dalel at the coffee shop in Chebba (MEE/Jenny Tsiropoulou)

When asked what their working conditions were like, they remain silent for a moment, sipping their coffees.

“There was immense exploitation. We were forced to work 10 hours per day, seven days per week for less than the minimum wage. We were entitled to a one-hour lunch break, but whoever exceeded 30 minutes had to work extra time. The chief locked us inside in order to complete our shift. If I refused, the next day I was punished, having to stand against the wall for hours. The owner accused us of being unskillful, cutting our pays. He humiliated us and took away our dignity,” she said.  

Fartoul and Mdimegh expressed fear in speaking out about their predicament and both agreed family pressure to remain quiet was substantial.

“Most textile factories treat women similarly, but we are afraid to talk. We often face pressure from our family to stay silent,” they added.

MEE contacted Mamotex owner, Mounir Driss, by phone. Driss denied the allegations claiming that “the environment was good but the workers were lazy or didn’t show up for work”.

Fighting for dignity

Fartoul smiles bitterly. “Nothing changed after the revolution. He was threatening to fire us if we denounced him. He was also exploiting our ignorance saying that the trade union would steal our money if we asked for help.”

In 2013, the women’s indignation triggered the decision to establish their syndicate. “That was our victory. There were no more insults nor punishment. We managed to work eight hours per day and get annual and maternity leave. We also negotiated our salaries collectively. It wasn’t easy as the owner was refusing to take part. We stopped working in order to hold assemblies. At the end, he had to listen to us,” they said with pride. Their syndicate is now suing the owner for unpaid salaries and social security contributions. 

Fartoul and Mdimegh repeat that finding “just a job” is their priority, echoing the despair of many young unemployed Tunisians. The women now spend their days on Facebook or doing housework.

“Our families support us because our unemployment is not our fault,” said Fartoul with a sigh. They look for jobs in textile companies, but the recruitment door is closed. The women will not even be able to receive jobseeker’s allowance as this year only former employees of the tourist industry are eligible after last year’s deadly attack in a Sousse holiday resort.

With unemployment hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles, workers are not ready to support changes to the law for fear of discouraging investors.

Both the UGTT and the FTDES unions agree that the application of the labour laws that protect the workers are minimised with the pretext of defending investments and employment, a fact that unveils the weakness of the state vis-a-vis private capital. Thus their fight is to at least apply the labour code with emphasis on the articles protecting workers.

Imen (middle) at the worker’s assembly in March (MEE/Alessia Tibolo)

Re-discovering social economy alternatives?

Convinced that the state cannot afford to offer jobs and that the private sector is weakening, according to an official declaration given by the General Secretary of the UGTT, the Trade Union will very soon present a bill focused on social and solidarity economy (SSE). Inspired by Latin America where SSE provides a protective shell against the global crisis, they will suggest alternatives in order to boost workers’ rights and tackle unemployment. In response to the large number of factories facing an upcoming or actual bankruptcy, the bill is expected to promote the idea of recovered factories run by workers’ cooperatives. 

“Social and solidarity economy is nothing new in Tunisia. It thrived in the 60s with cooperatives in various sectors, but the experience failed because Bourguiba’s government committed two mistakes: they obliged the people to participate, ignoring free choice, and they imposed a non-elected manager thus eliminating the democratic structure. Today you can establish a private company within 24 hours but there is no law to create a cooperative. Mamotex workers were also victims of a legal vacuum regarding self-management,” Azaiez Abderrahmen, the UGTT coordinator for social and solidarity economy told MEE.

The few grassroots workers’ initiatives which now flourish in Tunisia can pave the way for this. “We need to change the law in order to allow cooperatives to exist, to access the market and profit from tax incentives. But that should go hand in hand with practices on the ground. Civil society is crucial as we need a solidarity market. We want more attempts like Mamotex and when one of them is successful and publicised, actions will multiply,” said Alessia Tibolo, the Employment Initiatives in Social and Solidarity Economy (IESS) project manager from the Italian NGO COSPE.

Supporting the idea that the solidarity and social economy can emancipate local communities and offer economic and psychological independence as a sustainable solution against unemployment, EU co-funded IESS is now initiating regional training workshops on how to establish a social enterprise and also provides financial support. Mdimegh looks forward to participating along with other Mamotex workers, ambitious to start their own textile project.

“One thing we learnt is that we don’t need a boss. We can make a small business work by taking it in our own hands. And as a poet said, a Tunisian woman is a woman and a half!” she said waving her hand as she got on her bike and rode back home.

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