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Tunisian state workers strike as pay rise rejected under pressure from IMF

More than half a million Tunisians join public sector strike on Thursday as government 'reneges on promise' to raise salaries
Noureddine Taboubi, secretary general of the Tunisian General Labour Union. (Reuters)

Nearly 670,000 Tunisian civil servants participated in a nationwide strike on Thursday in protest against the government’s refusal to raise wages amid pressure by international lenders to cut the public sector wage bill.

The strike - the biggest in five years - is organised by the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), whose members represent an estimated five percent of the population of the North African country.

The UGTT has opposed aggressive economic reforms spearheaded by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to shrink Tunisia’s chronic budget deficit. The union had called for strikes on 24 October and 22 November to protest the government’s failure to raise the salaries of hundreds of thousands of public sector employees.

The unions, however, called off their October strike after months-long negotiations with the government led to an agreement to raise salaries of 150,000 employees. But under pressure from the IMF to cut the public sector wage bill from 15.5 percent to 12.5 percent of GDP in 2020, the government has “reneged on its promises” according to a senior UGTT official.  

The strike is mainly a reaction to the government’s failure to respect three previous agreements with the UGTT whereby the government agreed to start negotiations for a pay rise, said UGTT’s head of research Nizar Ben Saleh.

According to Saleh, the private sector, and some segments of the public sector have seen a 6.5 percent pay rise this year, but the majority of civil servants will not have their salaries increased, in a U-turn by Chahed’s government.

“The government has abandoned its obligations towards workers in order to fulfil its commitments towards the IMF,” Saleh told Middle East Eye.

“A pay rise is essential to preserve the purchasing power of the middle class, the backbone of Tunisia’s economy,” he added.

He said that Thursday’s strike was “successful” and will be followed by a planning meeting on Sunday to decide on next steps.

Earlier this month, the Tunisian parliament approved a cabinet reshuffle proposed by Chahed, who has been in office for more than two years.

Tunisia is regarded as the only successful democracy that emerged out of the Arab Spring. Analysts say much of this is because diverse parties were able to agree a progressive constitution in 2014, then set up an inclusive governing coalition. 

Successive governments, however, have failed to address high inflation, corruption and unemployment, all of which were grievances that sparked the 2011 revolution against autocrat Zine El Abedin Ben Ali.