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Unemployed Tunisians on hunger strike

A group of long-term unemployed Tunisians went on a hunger strike last month under the motto ‘Work or die’
The majority of the hunger strikers are former activists from the left-wing Tunisian General Students’ Union (MEE/Thessa Lageman)

UPDATE: This hunger strike ended on 21 April, Wael Nawar, the General Students’ Union UGET’s general secretary told MEE. On that day, the 17 hunger strikers in Tunis signed an agreement with the government that a committee would be formed to find suitable jobs for them. According to Nawar, the former hunger strikers have faith that this committee, which consists of officials from different ministries and MPs, has the power to help them. The Minister of Vocational Training and Employment was asked to comment on the matter by MEE, but has not responded. Other employees from the ministry called the matter too sensitive to answer any questions.

TUNIS - "Come closer, I can’t speak very loudly,” whispers 33-year-old Omar El Touati. He is lying on a mattress under several blankets alongside his fellow strikers - 13 men and three women - on the top floor of a building on Avenue Bourguiba, in the centre of the capital city. Weekend bags and slippers lay next to the makeshift beds.

They have not consumed anything but sugar cubes, water and tea since 16 March. All of the strikers are highly educated and have been unemployed for several years. “We’ve tried everything to find a job,” El Touati says. “We’ve also protested countless times, but no one seems to listen.”

The room is cold and several strikers are wearing jackets, hats and scarves. Their names are written on pieces of paper taped to the wall above their beds, next to slogans written in French and Arabic. A banner reads: “A hunger strike is the only way to get our rights.” There are also Tunisian flags and posters of left-wing politicians Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid, who were murdered by militants in 2013.

Unemployment has been on the rise since the Jasmine Revolution of 2011 and is now one of the biggest challenges facing the country’s new government, which was appointed earlier this year. This problem largely affects the nation’s youth. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 37.6 percent of young people are out of work.

Omar El Touati has a degree in computer science but only managed to find unskilled work as a waiter. “We haven’t seen anyone from the government yet,” he said. “They act like nothing’s happening. I didn’t expect that.” The only politicians who visited were a few MPs from opposition parties who stopped by to show their support.

According to a study published by the OECD last month, youth unemployment is a “true social tragedy that urgently needs to be addressed.” Among the nation’s highly educated youth, 62.3 percent are unemployed.

Blacklist

The majority of the hunger strikers are former activists from the left-wing Tunisian General Students’ Union (UGET). They were fierce opponents of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in 2011. Many of them were imprisoned and blacklisted from universities and public sector jobs. A few thousand people who fell under this category received jobs from the government after the revolution.

According to Minister of Vocational Training and Employment Zied Ladhari, the hunger strikers do not fall under this category. “I understand their need to be heard,” he tells Middle East Eye. “But there’s nothing I can do. If we make an exception for them, we’d have to do the same for ten thousand more people looking for work.” The minister does not intend on paying the strikers a visit. 

“Are you okay?” asks a doctor, while he takes one of the hunger striker’s blood pressure. “Do you have pain in your chest?” The man nods with a distant look on his face and then faints. He is carried away to the hospital 30 minutes later. Four others have been taken to the hospital in the past few days, then brought back at their request.

“I’ve seen hunger strikes before, but never for the purpose of finding work,” says one of the doctors present, Mohamed Hédi Souissi, secretary-general of the medical department at the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT). He explains that going without food for more than three weeks is extremely dangerous. “People can’t get forced to eat. Since the revolution things like that are not possible anymore,” he adds.

The UGTT supports the hunger strikers. “Their demands were completely ignored,” explains Sami Tahri, the organisation’s deputy secretary-general, over the phone. “A hunger strike is the only way they could express themselves. It’s a slow form of suicide.”

A doctor checks the blood pressure of one hunger striker (MEE/Thessa Lageman)
A doctor checks the blood pressure of one hunger striker (MEE/Thessa Lageman)

Europe or the caliphate

Forty-one-year-old Ibtisam Akrouti sits on her mattress in another room, with her back against the wall. A pair of worn blue slippers lay on the tiled floor at her feet. She graduated with a degree in Arabic in 2003 and tried unsuccessfully to find a job at a secondary school. Several years ago she tried to set up a day care centre, but is still awaiting approval.

She earns less than 100 euros per month while working as a day care assistant. “I always dreamed of getting married and having children, but it’s very expensive to get your own place,” explains Akrouti, who lives with her parents. “I feel like a huge part of my life has been taken away from me.” She sinks a little deeper into her pink blanket and continues in a soft voice: “If the strike doesn’t work I’ll go to Europe as a refugee.”

With their dreams of a better future having largely gone unfulfilled after the revolution, many Tunisians now feel disillusioned and are looking to move abroad. Some of them have entered Italy as undocumented migrants in the hopes of improving their luck in Europe. Others chose to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Several people enter the building. They are part of a group of 127 other unemployed people who support the hunger strikers and, like them, want the government to provide them with work. The police violently put a stop to their protest just outside the building after they blocked tram traffic to call attention to their cause. A man, his face swollen and bruised, explains that he was just beaten by the police after being arrested. He was released an hour and a half later. “It was humiliating, but I feel humiliated every day,” he says.

In Gabes in the south of the country, another group of hunger strikers are demanding jobs. Six men and two women have not eaten a thing since 27 February. “They’re in bad condition now of course,” explains Souhail Idoudi of the Union for Unemployed Graduates (UDC) over the phone. Last summer, six other people were offered jobs in the Ministry of Justice after a hunger strike organised by the UDC.

The Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment has tried to curb unemployment by offering loans to young people interested in starting their own business. Companies that employ young people can benefit from a unique scheme: the ministry has offered to pay for half of the wages for the first year, provided that 70 percent of them remain employed afterwards.

The hunger strikers - 13 men and three women - have not consumed anything but sugar cubes, water and tea since 16 March (MEE/Thessa Lageman)
The hunger strikers - 13 men and three women - have not consumed anything but sugar cubes, water and tea since 16 March (MEE/Thessa Lageman)

Empty promises

On a beach-front terrace in the La Goulette neighbourhood in Tunis, Skander Bahri, who is 30 years old and unemployed, enjoys a glass of mint tea with pine nuts. “I tried twice to get a job that way,” he says, “but I was never given a contract."

Bahri graduated with a degree in agronomy seven years ago and has held various temporary positions since. With each of these jobs came empty promises: a good salary, a contract, a car. “But it was too good to be true,” he says. “At my last job, my boss kept saying how hard things were, with the international crisis and all, and promised things would get better. I worked 66 hours a week for 250 euros a month - half of the agreed salary.”

According to the World Bank’s report, "Tunisia: Breaking the Barriers to Youth Inclusion", few unemployed Tunisians believe it’s possible to find a job without the right connections, regional background or bribery.

Bahri is joined on the terrace by a friend who obtained a degree in hydraulic engineering from a French university three years ago. He has also held various jobs and now earns less than 15 euros per night cleaning a restaurant. He prefers to remain anonymous because he told his parents he works in a management position. “They wouldn’t accept me doing work like this,” he explains. “It’s humiliating for someone from our social standing and would ruin our reputation. But I want to save money to start my own business and I don’t want to rely on my parents anymore.”

Neither of these young men would consider going on a hunger strike. “That’s too extreme,” Bahri says. “I understand them,” his friend adds, “but I’d rather solve the problem without help. Unemployment is an international problem and the state has enough problems, for example regarding the security.”

The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) met with Prime Minister Habib Essid on Monday to negotiate the demands of the hunger strikers. The government offered some of them help to start their own business and others were offered jobs at companies, but not in their own fields and far below their university level. Sami Tahi from the UGTT told MEE that the offer was “unrealistic” and the strikers therefore rejected it. “This means that unfortunately there's no solution yet,” he concluded.

Omar El Touati has now decided to stop drinking water as well. “I want dignity,” he says, defeated. “Either a job or death.”

The hunger strikers recently rejected a government offer of help, calling it 'unrealistic' (MEE/Thessa Lageman)
The hunger strikers recently rejected a government offer of help, calling it 'unrealistic' (MEE/Thessa Lageman)